Two years into the pandemic, federal prisons — including one in Fort Worth — still do not have COVID-19 under control.
Executive staff at federal prisons are failing to follow the Bureau of Prisons’ COVID-19 response plan, according to a federal report. FMC Carswell, a women’s medical prison in Fort Worth, does not have a facility-specific plan, employee union representatives said.
Women incarcerated at the facility described chaos and confusion throughout January as COVID-19 cases once again ran through the prison walls. As of Sunday, 248 women had confirmed COVID-19 cases and 46 staff members had the virus. Carswell had the third highest COVID-19 numbers of any federal prison facility in the country as of Friday.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, eight women have died from COVID-19 at Carswell.
“It’s been pure chaos,” Holli Wrice, who is incarcerated at the prison, said. “Carswell is still without a plan.”
The BOP developed a detailed, agency-wide pandemic response plan that all facilities are supposed to follow. However, a report from the Government Accountability Office found staff at facilities reported confusion on how to implement the plan’s procedures.
Jennifer Howard, union president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1006 representing more than 400 staff members at FMC Carswell, said executive staff leave union representatives out of the loop on COVID-19 discussions and safety plans.
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.”
The Star-Telegram was unable to reach Warden Michael Carr or other executive staff members at Carswell for comment.
At the men’s federal prison, FMC Fort Worth, executive staff and union representatives worked together to create a plan specific to the facility, said Gregory Watts, the union president of FMC Fort Worth’s AFGE Local 1298. While the prison still has some COVID-19 cases, the facility had 28 reported cases as of Monday as opposed to the 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.
The lack of a plan caused confusion and frustration among women incarcerated at Carswell. Five women messaged the Star-Telegram throughout January about increasing COVID-19 cases and frustration at the facility.
The day after Christmas, Wrice — who is housed in Unit 1 North — said COVID-19 cases were picking up at the facility and the unit had no hand soap. On Jan. 2, Faith Blake — housed in Unit 2 North — said her unit also had no soap, no tissues and “basically … we have the same dangerous living conditions as last time.” In September 2020, Blake and more than 70 other women in her unit filed a lawsuit against Carswell alleging they faced medical neglect and malicious treatment during the height of the pandemic at the prison.
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.”
Wrice said staff started to move women to different units in the prison in an attempt to isolate those who had been exposed to COVID-19. The “mixing and mingling” seemed to have the opposite effect, Wrice said. She said no one was tested before they moved to other units, potentially exposing more people.
“This move was crazy. 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.”
On Jan. 4, staff tested many of the women at the prison, but staff did not change out gloves and placed all the swab tests into the same four biohazard bags, Wrice said, potentially contaminating the tests.
By Jan. 12, most women were receiving daily temperature checks and had their oxygen levels checked by staff, wrote Megan Kemp, a woman housed in Unit 1 South. However, she said staff continued to move people around, running out of options of where to house sick women.
“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, staff moved people from the hospital unit into Unit 1 South, which was filled with people who had tested positive for COVID-19, Wrice said.
“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.”
On Wednesday, some women had been moved multiple times, sometimes back and forth between units, Dominga Balderas wrote in an email to the Star-Telegram. Some of the staff would not leave their office because they did not want to get sick, Balderas said.
Staff are short-handed at many BOP facilities, the GAO report found, and Howard and Watts reported their facilities had at least 20 vacancies each.
The Carswell local union 1006 filed a whistleblower complaint on Jan. 18 about the lack of guidance at the prison and staff shortages. The complaint, filed with Congressman Marc Veasey’s office, says executive staff have not created a facility-specific plan for Carswell, which the BOP pandemic plan says each facility should do. At Carswell especially, Howard said, a specific plan is necessary, because the facility is the only federal medical facility for women in the country.
“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. Staff need to be made aware of that guidance.”
The government’s report said staff shortages are a problem across the BOP. At Carswell, Howard said, staffing levels in the medical unit are “unacceptable for a medical facility.”
“Nursing staff are overworked,” Howard said. “As positions go unfilled, Carswell administration continues to add additional job duties to nurses, who are already stretched incredibly thin. One nurse might be doing the work of three jobs.”
Nursing staff might be pulled from their designated areas, leaving even fewer nurses to provide care. According to the BOP’s policy, “insufficient staffing will have an adverse effect on the quality, continuity, and cost-effectiveness of health care.”
At FMC Carswell, 441 occurrences of overtime were requested by custody staff alone in the last three weeks, Howard said, and staff sometimes work 16-hour shifts. COVID-19 exacerbates the problem — at one point in January, Howard said, 34 staff members were out at one time due to exposure or a positive test.
At FMC Fort Worth, Watts said they have similar staffing problems. Typically, one correctional officer oversees a unit of 280 to 300 men. The facility has 20 unfilled positions, and the shortage will likely become worse, Watts said. About 30 positions at FMC Fort Worth are being eliminated and will not be filled once the employee currently filling that positions leaves, Watts said.
“It’s not secret there are limited staff here,” he said.
The staffing problems at FMC Fort Worth, Carswell and other facilities are a result of Congress and the Department of Justice eliminating thousands of positions and not properly funding the BOP, Watts said. In 2018, according to a February 2021 report from the Government Accountability Office, the BOP eliminated 5,100 authorized positions across the country.
“We definitely need more staffing in the Bureau of Prisons,” Watts said. “I know for years, we’ve asked for more funding. The only way we’re going to get out of this crisis is to get more funding and more staffing.”
Executive staff at Carswell are also not following the BOP’s procedures for testing, Howard said.
The BOP recommended facilities start to offer weekly testing for staff in August 2021, but Carswell has not offered that to staff, Howard said. Unvaccinated staff are offered weekly testing, but the testing site is located inside the facility, resulting in unnecessary potential exposure, she said.
When any staff member is exposed at work, the facility is supposed to provide tests for employees. That was not happening until recently either, Howard said, and staff had to “use their own time and resources to obtain a test within a community which is already strained for testing.”
Lack of communication
Federal agencies should coordinate with union representatives to ensure safe COVID-19 conditions, according to an executive order President Joe Biden issued in January 2021. Carswell executive staff are not following that order, Howard said.
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.”
At FMC Fort Worth, the federal men’s prison, Watts said, union representatives have effective communication with executive staff.
“The big difference at Fort Worth and Carswell is the warden at Fort Worth is willing to work with us,” Watts said. “We are part of the decision process at Fort Worth.”
The Government Accountability Office’s report found a lack of communication between executive staff and employees across the BOP.
BOP officials hold conference calls and identify what COVID-19 practices are working or not working. However, the report says, the officials do not share that information with facility staff.
In response, the Government Accountability Office recommended the BOP implement an approach to share best practices for responding to COVID-19 and future public health emergencies and ensure its facilities apply those best practices.
The BOP also has “ongoing challenges with leadership instability and staff shortages,” the report notes. In a four-year period between 2016 and 2020, the BOP has had five different directors. In January, the current BOP director announced he will retire after facing public criticism of how the bureau has handled the pandemic.
The report offered recommendations to the BOP to address its deficiencies in three categories: inadequate management of staff and resources, inadequate planning for new programs or initiatives that help inmates prepare for a successful return to the community and insufficient monitoring and evaluation of those inmate programs.