COVID-19 is still uncontrollable in federal prisons, including Fort Worth, two years after the epidemic began.

According to a government investigation, executive personnel at federal prisons fail to implement the Bureau of Prisons’ COVID-19 response plan. Employee union members at FMC Carswell, a women’s medical prison in Fort Worth, stated the institution does not have a facility-specific strategy.

COVID-19 cases again flowed through the prison gates in January, causing turmoil and bewilderment among the women jailed there. COVID-19 cases have been verified in 248 women and 46 staff members as of Sunday. As of Friday, Carswell has the third-highest COVID-19 figures of any federal prison in the country.

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of eight women at Carswell since the outbreak began.

Holli Wrice“It’s been pure chaos,” Holli Wrice, who is incarcerated at the prison, said. “Carswell is still without a plan.”

The BOP created a comprehensive, agency-wide pandemic response strategy that all sites must follow. On the other hand, staff at facilities indicated uncertainty about how to follow the plan’s protocols, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office.

Executive staff kept union representatives out of the loop on COVID-19 talks and safety measures, according to Jennifer Howard, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1006, which represents more than 400 employees at FMC Carswell.

During the most recent meeting between union representatives and Carswell executive staff, Howard said, an executive staff member told reps, “I wish we could tell you we had a plan right now.”

“Executive staff told the union representatives that the response was fluid and they were addressing issues as they arose,” said Howard, who has been the president of local 1006 since 2021. “That’s the problem with staff and the union wanting to get the information out there, and every day is different.”

Warden Michael Carr and other Carswell executive staff members could not be reached for comment by the Star-Telegram.

According to Gregory Watts, president of FMC Fort Worth’s AFGE Local 1298, executive personnel and union officials collaborated to build a plan tailored to the site. While there are still some COVID-19 instances at the jail, there were only 28 documented cases as of Monday, compared to 248 at Carswell.

Howard said while she speaks for the staff and cannot speak on behalf of the women incarcerated at Carswell, staff as a whole “are here to make sure the institution is providing health, safety and security for all.”

“We cannot do that effectively if we do not have guidance,” Howard said.

‘PURE CHAOS’ is a phrase used to describe a chaotic situation.

Women detained at Carswell were confused and frustrated by the lack of a strategy. Throughout January, five women sent messages to the Star-Telegram about rising COVID-19 cases and discontent at the facility.

Write, who is confined in Unit 1 North, said COVID-19 instances were increasing at the institution the day after Christmas, and the unit lacked hand soap. Faith Blake, a resident of Unit 2 North, reported on Jan. 2 that her unit lacked soap and Kleenex and that “essentially… we have the same unsafe living circumstances as last time.” Blake and more than 70 other women in her unit filed a lawsuit against Carswell in September 2020, citing medical negligence and malicious abuse at the jail at the height of the pandemic.

On Jan. 2, Windy Panzo told Star-Telegram the prison was “pure chaos” as panic spread about the virus and was “like last year all over again.”

Staff began relocating women to various jail units in an attempt to separate individuals who had been exposed to COVID-19, according to Wrice. According to Wrice, “mixing and mingling” had the opposite impact. She said that no one was tested before they were relocated to other facilities, suggesting a risk of further exposure.

“This was a crazy move.” You think they would have learned from last year, but no,” Wrice said in an email. “Last night, I couldn’t sleep much. I tossed and turned all night, from noises of inmates coughing and hacking and moans of sickness and body aches. It reminded me of a hospital’s emergency rooms.”

Many of the women in the jail were tested on Jan. 4, but personnel did not change gloves and placed all of the swab samples into the same four biohazard bags, potentially contaminating the tests, according to Wrice.

Megan Kemp, imprisoned in Unit 1 South, reported on Jan. 12 that most women were undergoing daily temperature checks and having their oxygen levels checked by personnel. Staff, she added, continued to shift individuals about when they ran out of places to put sick ladies.

“You would think that they would learn by now.. Then again, they’re also limited,” Kemp wrote in an email. “Bcuz if you leave them in the unit, they’ll get others sick, however, put them in another place, IDK.. It’s crazy.”

Six days later, officials relocated patients from the hospital unit to Unit 1 South, which was crowded with COVID-19 positive persons, according to Wrice.

“Those inmates are the ones that are very sick, they are battling kidney disease, and different forms of cancer,” Wrice wrote. “They immune systems are really compromised.”

In an email to the Star-Telegram on Wednesday, Dominga Balderas said that some women had been relocated many times, sometimes back and forth between units. According to Balderas, some employees refused to leave their offices because they didn’t want to become sick.

Not Enough BOP Employees

According to the GAO study, several BOP facilities are understaffed, with Howard and Watts reporting at least 20 vacancies apiece.

On Jan. 18, the Carswell local union 1006 submitted a whistleblower complaint about the prison’s lack of guidance and personnel shortages. According to the complaint submitted with Congressman Marc Veasey’s office, executive staff did not construct a facility-specific strategy for Carswell, as required by the BOP pandemic plan. According to Howard, because Carswell is the only federal medical center for women, a unique approach is required.

“I see that we are two years in this pandemic, it’s not new anymore,” Howard said. “We should have something in writing or some type of guidance to go by. That instruction must be communicated to all employees.”

According to the government assessment, staff shortages are a concern across the BOP. According to Howard, staffing numbers in the medical unit at Carswell are “inappropriate for a medical facility”.

“Nursing staff is overworked,” Howard said. “As posts go vacant, Carswell administration continues to burden already overburdened nurses with extra responsibilities. “It’s possible that one nurse is doing the work of three people.”

Nursing personnel may be reassigned from their assigned locations, leaving even fewer nurses to care for patients. “Insufficient staffing will have an unfavorable effect on the quality, continuity, and cost-effectiveness of health care,” according to the BOP’s policy.

There are now 420 persons employed in the jail, with 22 vacancies. Because the government has removed so many employees, Howard believes the personnel gap is far worse than those figures indicate.

According to Howard, custody personnel at FMC Carswell sought 441 instances of overtime in the previous three weeks, and workers often work 16-hour hours. COVID-19 exacerbates the situation; according to Howard, 34 employees were off at one time in January due to exposure or a positive test.

Watts claimed that similar staffing issues exist at FMC Fort Worth. A correctional officer usually supervises a unit of 280 to 300 inmates. According to Watts, the facility has 20 open positions, and the shortfall is expected to worsen. About 30 positions at FMC Fort Worth are being terminated, according to Watts, and will not be replaced after the current employee leaves.

“It’s not secret there are limited staff here,” he said.

According to Watts, the staffing issues at FMC Fort Worth, Carswell, and other facilities resulted from Congress and the Department of Justice cutting thousands of jobs and underfunding the BOP. The BOP removed 5,100 authorized positions around the country in 2018, according to a February 2021 report from the Government Accountability Office.

“We definitely need more staffing in the Bureau of Prisons,” Watts said. “I know we’ve been requesting additional cash for years. More financing and staffing are the only ways we’ll be able to get out of this predicament.”

According to Howard, Carswell’s executive staff is also not following the BOP’s testing protocols.

The BOP suggested that facilities begin offering weekly testing for employees in August 2021, but Howard claims that Carswell has not done so. Unvaccinated employees are offered weekly testing, but the testing location is within the facility, exposing them to unnecessary risk, she added.

When a staff member is exposed at work, the facility must offer employees testing. According to Howard, this was not the case until recently, and staff had to “use their own time and resources to secure a test within a community that is already stressed for testing.”

Bad Communication

According to an executive order signed by President Joe Biden in January 2021, federal agencies shall work with union representatives to maintain safe COVID-19 conditions. According to Howard, the Carswell executive staff is disobeying the injunction.

In regards to the executive order, Howard said, “the agency locally and nationally has not consulted with unions during this pandemic in coming up with a pandemic response prior to implementing any changes to our working conditions.”

According to Watts, union leaders at FMC Fort Worth, a federal men’s prison, enjoy efficient contact with executive personnel.

“The big difference at Fort Worth and Carswell is the warden at Fort Worth is willing to work with us,” Watts said. “At Fort Worth, we’re a part of the decision-making process.”

A lack of communication between senior officials and personnel across the BOP was discovered in the Government Accountability Office report.

Officials from the Bureau of Prisons arrange conference calls to determine which COVID-19 methods are working and which are not. The officials, however, do not share this information with facility employees, according to the article.

In response, the Government Accountability Office suggested that the BOP develop a strategy for sharing best practices for responding to COVID-19 and future public health emergencies and ensuring that those best practices are implemented in its facilities.

THE REPORT NOTES THAT the BOP also has “ongoing challenges with leadership instability and staff shortages,” the report notes. The BOP has had five different directors in the four years between 2016 and 2020. After widespread criticism of the bureau’s handling of the epidemic, the current BOP director announced his retirement in January.

The study made suggestions to the BOP in three areas: insufficient personnel and resource management, insufficient preparation for new programs or initiatives to assist convicts in preparing for a successful return to society, and insufficient monitoring and assessment of these inmate programs.

Source: Star-Telegram