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Federal prisons resume visitation in October, 7 months after COVID-19 forced suspension

Sept 1, 2020

By Kevin Johnson - USA Today

The federal prison system, the largest in the country, is preparing to resume inmate visitation in October, seven months after social visits were suspended due to the threat posed by the deadly coronavirus, officials said Tuesday.

"We are committed to protecting the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, as well as our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in," BOP spokesman Emery Nelson said. "It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities; therefore, every CDC recommended precaution will be incorporated into our visiting procedures."

The move comes as the virus has exacted a heavy toll, claiming the lives of 118 prisoners and two staff members. And the threat still remains, with 1,643 inmates listed as infected, along with 661 staffers. More than 11,000 inmates and staffers have recovered, the agency reported Tuesday.

"Visitation will be non-contact only," according to an internal memo outlining the plan, adding that inmates will be separated by Plexiglas or a similar barrier to "prevent any contact."

"In the alternative, if a barrier is not present, social distancing (six feet spaces) between visitors and inmates must be enforced," the agency said. "The frequency and number of visitors should be adjusted to ensure all inmates have an opportunity to visit at least twice a month."

Inmates and their visitors will be required to wear face masks, while temperature checks will be conducted before visitors are allowed entry. 

Kevin Ring, president of the prisoner advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said BOP's action represents a "first step" for anxious families who have gone months without seeing loved ones.

But he said the proposed restrictions, particularly the prohibition on physical contact, will be difficult to abide.

"The families have been incredibly patient and understanding," Ring said. 

Prisoners who are in isolation because of infection or in quarantine because of possible contact with infected inmates will be barred from visitation.

As the pandemic swept the country, prisons have been among the hardest hit institutions. And they are among the last to begin loosening restrictions.

Because of the heightened risk, the Justice Department approved the expedited placement of the most vulnerable inmates in home confinement. Since March, more than 7,500 inmates have been released to serve the remainder of their sentences under some condition of home confinement.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen (center) tours the Englewood Federal Correctional Facility with Hugh Hurwitz (at left), acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. At right is the warden of the facility. Ross Taylor for USA Today