Two U.S. senators said Wednesday that they were denied access to parts of a federal prison in Connecticut while trying to examine conditions there in response to correctional officers’ complaints about a staffing shortage and lack of coronavirus precautions.
Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 itself were behind the denial, the federal Bureau of Prisons said.
Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Connecticut Democrats, visited the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution but were not allowed to see the women’s facility, Murphy said. They were able to see a men’s unit but had to “fight” to get in, he said.
“This is unacceptable,” Murphy said in a series of tweets. “DOJ and the Bureau of Prisons needs to fix this and assure that policymakers can view conditions, especially during crisis moments like this.”
The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement that Murphy and Blumenthal were given a tour of the prison “based on current COVID-19 safety protocols.”
“For health and safety reasons, portions of the tour were adjusted by the Warden to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 following an increase in COVID-19 cases,” the statement said.
The bureau did not immediately respond to other questions about correctional officers’ concerns about staffing and coronavirus protocols. A bureau spokesperson said responses were being prepared.
The Danbury prison complex houses 1,078 inmates, according to the bureau. Murphy and the local correctional officers’ union say about 40% of the inmates are in isolation or quarantine because of the coronavirus.
The virus has been spreading widely again in federal prisons across the country. The Bureau of Prisons says it oversees more than 145,000 inmates in institutions and community-based facilities.
Of the total inmates, 8,074 currently are currently infected with the coronavirus and more than 1,640 of the 36,000 staff members are infected, according to bureau data.
Staffing levels and virus infections at prisons nationwide have been among numerous concerns under outgoing bureau Director Michael Carvajal, whose departure was revealed earlier this month.
Shaun Boylan, a Danbury prison staffer and executive vice president of the local prison staff union, said a staffing shortage there is requiring many correctional officers to work double shifts. Officers are exhausted, morale is low and conditions are dangerous, he said.
Staffing problems also are resulting in officers working in several units, which may be helping to spread the virus, Boylan said. And it is taking too long — two days — to receive virus testing results for staff, he said.
“We don’t have the staff to stop the spread of coronavirus here because they’re using the shortened numbers of staff, and they’re going all over the place,” Boylan said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Boylan said there are just over 80 correctional officers at Danbury, compared with 115 two years ago and 72 officers short of meeting the Bureau of Prisons’ own staffing guidelines. While the bureau’s goal is one officer per prison unit, the Danbury staff to unit ratio is 1 to 3, he said. Thirteen officers are out of work because of the virus, he said.
The bureau has said Danbury is more than 90% staffed, but the union doesn’t agree with that number.
Murphy, Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, also a Connecticut Democrat, earlier this month called for a federal investigation of the Danbury prison complex after saying they received reports of officials not following coronavirus protocols.
Bureau of Prisons officials have previously said they follow the COVID-19 guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Murphy said Wednesday that more staff and quicker virus testing times are needed at the prison.