Just three days after the Federal Bureau of Prisons lifted its mask mandate at the Federal Medical Center at Devens, near Boston, COVID-19 cases exploded across the housing units. The medical isolation wing of the medical building is completely full and staff are stuffing prisoners with COVID into the Special Housing Unit (SHU), a jail of sorts within the prison with no medical personnel on shift.
It happened rather fast. On Friday (July 8), I reported that the entire medical prison was operating under “green” conditions, meaning that no masks were required anywhere in the prison (see here). By Tuesday, flocks of infected prisoners filled the medical isolation unit and staff have been sending the rest to the SHU.
Let me explain why the SHU is not a great place to put prisoners with COVID. The first thing staff does is strip search anyone going into the SHU. Then they put you in an orange jumpsuit and handcuff your hands behind your back. You`re put into a metal and concrete room with a terrible mattress and a metal toilet. You might get a Styrofoam cup. You have none of your medications or over-the-counter meds that you could buy at commissary, like Tylenol. The BOP doesn`t provide medications in the SHU, except prescription meds that medical staff deliver when needed.
You`ll sit in the SHU 10 days, even though the isolation period for COVID out in the “free world” is only 5 days. You`ll be handed food through a slot in the door and won`t have access to the phone or email. I`ve seen where some BOP prisons don`t allow mail delivery (incoming or outgoing) for anyone in isolation. It`s a very stark place, and definitely not a place where someone sick with COVID should be housed. In fact, the SHU is designed as a disciplinary unit for people who get into trouble. Regardless of why someone is in the SHU, the same disciplinary rules apply to everyone in there. That means COVID prisoners in the SHU are punished for being sick.
That`s what`s happening at the BOP`s medical prison right now. They are filling the SHU with prisoners sick with COVID-19. Meanwhile, the virus is spreading like wildfire throughout the housing units. Why? Because staff are forcing prisoners to eat in the dining hall on top of each other, mixing units. Obviously, it`s impossible to eat with a mask on. They stopped allowing prisoners to bring to-go containers of food back to the housing units to eat in their rooms in somewhat safe conditions. They cited the high cost of those to-go containers as the reason for doing requiring everyone to eat together in the chow hall.
This is reality for prisoners still struggling with COVID-19 in the BOP.
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.