The federal Bureau of Prisons has ordered a national lockdown amid civil unrest in cities across the country in a move that resembled the agency's most severe restrictions at its facilities in 25 years.
Federal authorities, already struggling to contain deadly outbreaks of the coronavirus that has left 68 inmates dead, had imposed nationwide restrictions on inmate movements in March in an attempt to limit the virus' spread. But officials took the more restrictive action late Monday as a surge of violent clashes between protesters and police erupted after the death of George Floyd, whose neck was pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
"In light of extensive protest activity occurring around the country, the BOP – in an abundance of caution – is implementing an additional, temporary security measure to ensure the good order and security of our institutions, as well as ensure the safety of staff and inmates," the agency said in a statement late Monday. "In securing our facilities, our hope is that this security measure is short-lived and that inmates will be restored to limited movement in the very near future."
Officials stressed that this week's lockdown was not prompted by inmate actions, which in 1995 sparked a series of riots at several federal prisons across the system.
Appearing before a Senate panel Tuesday, Michael Carvajal, director of the vast federal prison system, acknowledged that the virus-related deaths were "difficult to accept" but defended the agency's response to the pandemic.
The director, who was appointed just weeks before the first wave of prison infections this spring, said fewer than half of the bureau's 122 facilities had reported infections. He said two-thirds of all cases were in seven prisons.
"There has been loss," Carvajal said. "Those deaths affect us deeply. The losses are difficult to accept."
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As of Tuesday, prison officials reported that 1,650 inmates and 171 staffers had been infected. Another 3,613 inmates and 445 staff have recovered.
Authorities have released more than 3,000 potentially vulnerable inmates to home confinement since March 26. But lawmakers seized on that program Tuesday, raising questions about high-profile inmates, including President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort,
Manafort, who was serving a combined sentence of 7½ years in prison from two criminal cases that resulted from the special counsel investigation on Russia's election meddling in 2016, was released to his home last month. That release was followed quickly by the release of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to coordinating payoffs to buy the silence of adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The women said they had sexual affairs with Trump before he was elected.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said both cases "highlighted how we have two separate justice systems" in the United States, noting that just 2% of the federal prison population had been approved for home confinement.
"Nobody has asked me about any particular inmate," Carvajal said, adding that candidates for home confinement are subjected to a review that includes the potential risk posed to public safety.
Throughout the hearing, Democrats drew parallels to the deep racial disparities in the country most recently exposed by Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
"America still lives in the shadow of its original sin, slavery," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said. Durbin said the prison system's method for evaluating the risk posed by inmates underscored racial disparities. He said 7% of black inmates were classified as posing a minimal risk to the public compared with 30%of white prisoners.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised the case of Andrea Circle Bear, the pregnant female prisoner who contracted the coronavirus and died in April after giving birth.
Circle Bear, 30, was serving the first few months of a two-year sentence for a drug charge. The 30-year-old inmate She died a little more than a month after she was transferred to the Carswell Federal Medical Center, a women's prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
Asked whether Circle Bear should have qualified for the home confinement program given her condition and the drug charge, Carvajal indicated that the inmate's condition had deteriorated rapidly, though she did not display symptoms of the virus when she entered the system March 20.
"It was very unfortunate what happened to her," Carvajal said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd protests: Federal prisons on lockdown amid outside unrest