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Union says Hazelton prison to become regional quarantine site for prisoners

HAZELTON -— U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton has been designated a quarantine site for prisoners, while it is determined if they have coronavirus, and members of Local 420 of the American Federation of Government Employees oppose the designation.

In an email to The Dominion Post, Local 420 President Richard Heldreth said that, up to this point, no prisoners or staff at the prison have been confirmed to have the virus.

In an April 22 address, Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director M.D. Carvajal said that between then and March 26, a total of 540 inmates nationally had tested positive for the virus, with 220 recovered, and more than 300 BOP staff members had tested positive across the U.S.

This week, Heldreth said, he was made aware that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons plans “to transfer hundreds of inmates from the D.C. jail system to the Hazelton FCC.”

“Initially, I was advised that this was due to overcrowding in their system. I have since discovered that this is not the case (the D.C. system has reduced their inmate population by more than 20% in the last two months). The real reason appears to be that the D.C. system is experiencing a large outbreak from COVID-19, and there have been concerns in the media that they have not properly applied distancing measures and PPE to their inmate populations, which has apparently resulted in over 80 inmates being confirmed positive,” Heldreth said,

A Bureau spokesman said Friday that, “we can confirm that FCC Hazelton is one of the BOP’s sites identified as a quarantine location. As federal courts continue to sentence offenders, we are required by statute to accept newly admitted inmates from the U.S. Marshals Service.”

“These newly admitted inmates will be screened and their temperatures will be checked daily by BOP staff. In the event an inmate shows symptoms for COVID-19, he or she will be placed in a single cell in an isolation unit and monitored and managed consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Following the completion of the quarantine period, or following successful resolution of COVID-19 for inmates maintained in isolation, the inmates will be moved to their designated institution,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman did not answer other questions posed by the newspaper, citing its “short deadline,” requesting a reply on the same day. Those questions included whether additional medical and correctional staff will be provided and where at Hazelton space will be made for the quarantine unit.

Local response

Members of Local 420 feel this is, “a massive mistake and would risk the lives of thousands of staff and inmates.”

Preston County Health Department Director V.J. Davis said Friday the department was not told by the Bureau of Prisons of any possible quarantine or COVD-19 cases coming.

“Those decisions are made at the federal level, and the local health department is not consulted,” Davis said.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said Friday that, “The health and safety of corrections officers is paramount while recognizing this is a unique and challenging situation. My office is in contact with the BOP and Hazelton officials and will remain so. I strongly oppose releasing violent criminals, so balancing the need to keep violent criminals behind bars and also preventing an outbreak in these facilities is extremely challenging.”

The office of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he would be speaking with the BOP director on Friday.

“These inmates should be quarantined where they are – not sent to our state to infect our facility. If the D.C. system needs more staff to help with this issue, we have over 1,000 staff in that area assigned to [Bureau of Prisons] Central Office that could be asked to assist them,” Heldreth said.

As of Friday, Preston County has had 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

FCI Gilmer, W.Va., is also among the handful of quarantine sites named by the BOP.

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