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How to Fail at Running a Prison During a Pandemic

A firsthand account from FCI Seagoville in Texas, one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic

by Anthony W. Accurso

[Editor’s note: As of July 22, the Bureau of Prisons website reported 1,220 prisoners had tested positive for coronavirus at Seagoville, the highest number at any BOP prison. Ten staff had tested positive.]

As I write this, I am incarcerated at a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility near Dallas, Texas known as FCI Seagoville. As of early July, my institution is making headlines as the federal prison with the largest uncontrolled infection rate of the novel coronavirus in the United States.

While the BOP has ostensibly been preparing for this moment and disseminating guidelines for how to manage the pandemic at each facility, this institution has managed to fail spectacularly at preventing the virus from breaching the prison walls, and containing it once it did. In retrospect, the measures taken by the prison’s administration were flawed from the beginning and marred by noncompliance by correctional officers (COs).

The entire BOP system has been on some form of modified operation (aka “lockdown”) since April 1, 2020. This lockdown was supposed to reduce the possibility of introducing the virus into facilities by eliminating contact visits by friends and family of prisoners, and by eliminating all non-essential contractor visits. Further, each housing unit was supposed to be kept as separate as possible so that if the virus did get into the inmate population, it would not spread throughout the entire population.

FCI Seagoville started out well, largely due to an accident of timing. Due to necessary repairs to the visitation room, we had been prevented from getting any visits from friends and family for a few weeks prior to the lockdown. As we heard about other facilities starting to experience early outbreaks, we felt lucky that we did not experience an early infection from this vector.

Maybe things went too well. As weeks, and indeed nearly three months, passed without an infection among the general population of prisoners, staff grew complacent. Many COs were working their shifts in the housing units without wearing their masks at all, or not using them to cover their mouth and nose. Rumors began spreading about the lax measures used to protect the prisoner population from staff introduction of the virus, including that the daily screenings for staff prior to beginning their shift no longer included temperature checks. Reporting from FCI Oakdale, another facility that had a severe and widespread infection in the prisoner population, showed that staff were induced to lie during their screenings so they could work their shifts and not get fired for using too much “sick time.”

All the while, at FCI Seagoville prisoners were still working to provide essential services in the institution. Inmates from various units would leave their buildings and go to work, together, in places like food service and maintenance. True, most work details had ceased, but these work details were viewed as “essential,” and thus would continue regardless of the danger of intermixing between buildings and being more exposed to staff. We were also leaving our buildings together to pick up our food and go to health services for medications and sick call. It turns out this is what likely doomed us.

At the end of June, prisoners were sent back from their work details ahead of schedule. On Thursday the 25th, we were notified that at least three prisoners had tested positive in the same building. The institution went into a real lockdown, and the work details that were labeled “essential” before now ceased. We went from getting our laundry done twice per week to once per week, which results in having to frequently wear dirty clothing since we’re only allowed so many changes of clothes, and several of our housing units are not air-conditioned. We are not allowed to exchange our torn or worn-out clothing anymore.

Our commissary limit went from $50 per week to $25, making it more difficult to supplement the food we were getting (or the lack thereof) with the mildly healthier options we used to be able to buy. We went from two hot meals per day made by prisoners, to one hot meal per day made by staff. The quality and consistency dropped off noticeably. We get honeybuns and Pop-Tarts for breakfast, and a sack dinner, which usually includes some kind of bologna sandwich, chips, and a peanut butter and jelly thing.

Days later, we learned that it was not just the one building that had active infections. While the original building had quickly ballooned to over 30 active cases, prisoners in other buildings were turning up positive, too. The staff started doing twice-daily temperature checks and asking us if we had any symptoms. Prisoners were removed from the units and taken to temporary housing areas if they displayed any symptoms or “failed” the temperature checks. It was distressing that they seemed to just disappear. Little to no communication was forthcoming from the administration other than we’d have to make “sacrifices” as staff were now having to do the jobs inmates used to.

Thankfully, my housing unit was largely spared. One prisoner tested positive two days into the lockdown, and only a few more developed symptoms. Rumors were that rapid-test results came back negative for the few prisoners who had symptoms. We heard rumors that wide-spread testing was occurring, and we saw mass movements of prisoners through our windows as other housing units were juggled around.

We finally got mass-tested on Tuesday, July 7th, and we were told it would take three to seven days to get the results. The following Friday, a dozen prisoners were called to the office and told to pack their property because they were being moved. Nobody was told why, though we all suspected that they came back positive despite being asymptomatic. Our friends and families were telling us that confirmed cases for our prison, as reported on the BOP’s website, were escalating alarmingly every day. Some days we added 30 confirmed cases, some days it was closer to one hundred. We were told that we could expect to be moved around soon based on our test results.

Saturday, July 8th came with an announcement. About half the results came back by mid-afternoon, and everyone in the housing unit was told to pack up. They could leave some property in the locker in their cells, but we should pack everything we’d need to live off of for two weeks into our laundry bags.

By the evening, our building had been separated into two populations with a metal door separating each side of the unit. One side was clearly for prisoners who had tested positive. Some of the dozen guys that had been moved the day before returned to that side, as well as other men who had symptoms prior to being moved (but after being tested). The rest of us were “pending” our test results, and were going to be moved to temporary housing until we were confirmed negative or positive.

Dozens of prisoners were moved in waves out of the building, but a strange thing happened. A few came back. It turns out that the building used to house prisoners whose tests were pending was still not air-conditioned, and several of these prisoners had underlying health conditions that required air-conditioning (such as COPD, asthma, or other temperature sensitive conditions). They were sent back to stay with those of us who had been told we were negative. They quit moving prisoners after that, and about 80 men remained.

Over the next few days, more prisoners in our area (of mixed “pending” and negatives) came down with symptoms. One prisoner reported these symptoms to staff on Saturday night and again on Sunday yet was told that he would not be moved. Staff failed to perform temperature checks on Sunday, nor did they ask if anyone had symptoms. Other prisoners reported to staff that they had symptoms, and nothing was done. Finally, one prisoner’s symptoms got so bad that he required medical intervention and he was moved out of the unit. We thought we were pending, but now it seemed they no longer cared whether we were infected, or whether the virus was spreading among the pending and soon-to-be-formerly-negative populations housed together.

All the while we learned that we had over 800 confirmed infections out of a general population of just less than 1,550. The infection was clearly not under control, and staff had seemed to give up trying to control it. Fear, desperation, and resignation prevailed among us. We used to joke about how this prison was more of a nursing home because of the number of prisoners who were elderly or had chronic conditions. Now it seemed like that comparison was going to be more apt than we thought now that we knew what the coronavirus had done to nursing homes in the real world.

Sometime after the outbreak in the prison, the staff posted a document on the electronic bulletin board. It was from the CDC titled, “CDC Guidance on Management of COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities.” We don’t know why staff put this document there, as the guidance was mostly about things we could not control. But as it was dated March 30, 2020, we got to learn what the CDC was telling prisons to do about the virus. We also learned that nearly nothing from that document was actually implemented at our facility, or at least not until it was too late.

All throughout this process, much could have been done to mitigate the risks to the prisoner population and, by extension, the nearby communities. The warden could have used her power under the CARES Act to send prisoners to home confinement. But early on, someone decided on a list of qualifications that almost no prisoner could pass and thus nobody was released.

A great many of the men who were elderly or had chronic conditions as identified by the CDC were sex offenders, and the warden certainly didn’t want to be on the hook if someone from this group was placed on home detention and then reoffended. A great many of us with underlying conditions (as identified by the CDC) sent compassionate release requests, first to the warden (as required by law) and then to the courts.

Yet the courts seemed just as reluctant to release inmates. Our chronic conditions were questioned by the courts, largely because the BOP had failed to accurately document and treat our conditions or because the courts listened to the Department of Justice, which claimed that the BOP was managing the pandemic well. Many requests were denied for petty reasons. Sometimes  the warden’s denial was presented but not the initial request to the warden for release.

Many steps could have been taken to reduce the population. Many more steps could have been taken to reduce the risk to the vulnerable prisoners whose sentences have been transformed into death sentences. But society has decided that punishment is more important than anything else. We are trapped here, our fates unknown. The only thing we know for sure is that we must continue to be punished.