Bill AtkinsonThe Progress-Index
Virginia's two senators and two of its congressional representatives are renewing bipartisan calls for answers about what they report as "troubling conditions" at the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg and a sibling federal facility in southwest Virginia, including lack of personal protection equipment and "diminished quality of life" for inmates.
In the letter, Sens, Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, D-Virginia; and Reps. A. Donald McEachin, D-4th, and H. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, expressed frustration with the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons over failure to respond to correspondence they sent at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic citing the conditions. They said that while their concerns have gone unanswered, "conditions ... in many ways appear to have deteriorated."
The lawmakers said their concern not only exists for the two facilities — FCC Petersburg, located in Prince George County, and United States Penitentiary Lee in Lee County — but also to the surrounding communities.
At FCC Petersburg, for example, they cited information that staff and inmates have had to reuse supplies and masks. That poses "serious health and safety risks," they wrote.
"Given the close quarters and frequent person-to-person interaction, correctional staff and incarcerated individuals are especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. Lack of PPE also creates additional risk of community spread outside the facilities," read the letter, addressed to BOP director Michael Carvajal. "Relatedly, we have learned from facility staff that showers are restricted for individuals incarcerated at FCI Petersburg, a policy which further exacerbates sanitation and hygiene issues during a global pandemic.”
Additionally, they said they have been told that access to outdoor recreation activities, exercise facilities and phones have been reduced. While that is likely due to the COVID-19 restrictions, "it is imperative that correctional facilities find new ways to maintain and support a healthy quality of life for incarcerated individuals during this crisis,” the letter said.
And that is not all, the lawmakers wrote.
“We have also heard disturbing reports that the food the incarcerated individuals are receiving has declined significantly in both quantity and quality, including being served spoiled food," the letter stated. "Such conditions are unacceptable.”
Warner, Kaine, McEachin and Griffith originally sent a letter to Carvajal May 21 pointing out reports of less-than-satisfactory quantities of pandemic protection at the two jails. According to them, that letter went unanswered.
"We remain deeply concerned that the conditions within those facilities have failed to improve – and in many ways, appear to have deteriorated,” the lawmakers wrote.
Pertaining to the jails' staffs, the senators and congressmen reiterated a point made in that May letter that correctional officers were not getting adequate meal breaks while working shifts as long as 16 hours. They called that "unacceptable and dangerous."
A spokesman for BOP said in an email to The Progress-Index, "The Bureau of Prisons responds directly to Members of Congress and their staff. Out of respect and deference to Members, we do not comment on our Congressional briefings or share our Congressional correspondence with media."
Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Warner called that response "misinformation from the BOP." He confirmed the original letter in May was never answered by BOP officials.
While he stopped short of calling for a formal congressional investigation into the conditions, Warner said this time around, any response received has to be more than just an acknowledgement.
"A simple letter response is not sufficient," he said. "We have to get to the bottom of this."
FCC Petersburg consists of two campuses, a low-security facility with approximately 1,150 inmates, and a medium-security jail with more than 1,500 prisoners. USP Lee, located in Pennington Gap, is a high-security complex with around 1,400 prisoners, including 143 at a satellite medium-security camp.
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