The COVID-19 pandemic taught the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that lockdowns are an easy way to deal with its chronic problems. The lockdown-quarantines proved to be an effective way to reduce the workload on BOP staff and reduce costs, while still keeping the maximum number of people locked up in prison — despite Congress and experts demanding the release of prisoners to lessen the death toll from the virus.
Let me give you an example of how much the COVID-19 lockdown-quarantines have changed the way the BOP handles its problems. I talked to someone who`s been in federal prison over a dozen years and he said that prior to COVID-19 there were no nationwide lockdowns in the BOP. However, in the last 18 months, since the BOP began the lockdown-quarantines, there have been three nationwide lockdowns.
First, there was a nationwide full lockdown of all BOP prisons on June 2, 2020, because of potential violence due to the protests over the death of George Floyd. On January 16, 2021, a full 10 days after the incident occurred, the BOP ordered a nationwide lockdown due to the January 6th insurrection at the nation`s capitol. And then there was another nationwide lockdown on January 31, 2022, because of a fight at a prison in Beaumont, Texas.
Sure, BOP prisons have had lockdowns when needed in the past. But those lockdowns have been limited to only the prisons affected by circumstances calling for a lockdown. It wasn`t a lockdown of all 120-plus BOP prisons across the country. That kind of severe lockdown didn`t start until recently.
So what changed? One major thing that happened since those three nationwide lockdowns was that the BOP had to lockdown, or “quarantine” as they called it, all of its prisons because of its botched handling of the coronavirus. The BOP used the only solution it knows: Lock everyone up. It`s the BOP`s standard response to anything it doesn`t understand. And it definitely didn`t understand COVID-19.
But then then the BOP discovered that keeping prisoners in their cells was much easier. Throwing cereal and baloney in a bag is a lot easier than cooking three meals a day. This is especially true when you have a group of prisoners forced to work in the chow hall, stuffing bags, and then going back to their cells once that`s complete. Simple!
And you don`t need to run any programs when prisoners are stuck in their cells. Recreation is closed. Education classes are canceled. The library is closed. There`s no commissary. Even medical care is cut back to only the essentials and emergency care.
So when the BOP has a staffing shortage, a lockdown provides a ton of staff from all of these departments that are shut down during a lockdown. Staffing problems solved!
I guess you can`t really blame the BOP for taking the easy way out by locking down its prisons. If you had a house full of noisy, rambunctious kids and a bedroom for each one, wouldn`t you be tempted at times to lock them in their rooms so you could have some alone time? Slide a PBJ under the door and call it a night. That`s assuming you could legally do so (but you can`t).
The problem is that it is perfectly legal for the BOP to lock down its prisons whenever it wants. The bar they have to meet for this is quite low: Simply cite something that`s “a threat to the safety and security of the institution” and that`s it.
With the ousting of BOP Director Michael Carvajal, and with the pending bill in Congress to allow the president to appoint the BOP director (instead of the attorney general), maybe things could change. Then again, maybe not. This same bill, called the Federal Prisons Accountability Act, was proposed in 2019 but died before it ever got started. The same lawmakers are pushing for it again this year.
Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a consultant in federal post-conviction procedure and an authority on federal sex offense issues.