DOJ team will review conditions at coronavirus-plagued federal prisons, with assist from inspector general

A Justice Department team has been reviewing conditions at coronavirus-plagued federal prisons where 16 inmates have died in the past month and as infections of inmates and officers continue to mount throughout the system, a Justice official said Thursday.

A group of senior advisers to Attorney General William Barr have conducted in-person inspections of the hardest hit units in Louisiana, Ohio and North Carolina. A virtual inspection was scheduled at the facility in Lompoc, Calif., where 69 inmates and 22 staffers have been infected, said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly.

Barr also has asked Justice’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to assist in the review, which was launched late last week.

The low-security facility in Oakdale, Louisiana, has reported six deaths so far; five inmates assigned to the Elkton, Ohio prison have died; there have been four deaths in Butner, North Carolina; and one at San Pedro, Calif.

At least 449 inmates and 280 staffers have been infected across the bureau’s system of 122 facilities.

There was no immediate timeline for when the review would be completed, and the official said that Barr remained confident in the current leadership at the agency long troubled staffing shortages.

Michael Carvajal, the current director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, was appointed by Barr just two months ago as part of a continuing leadership makeover following the August suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. 

Carvajal, a career prison official who had been serving as an assistant director, was elevated to the top spot to succeed Kathleen Hawk Sawyer. Barr had appointed Hawk Sawyer to serve as director in the days after Epstein was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell, prompting a bureau-wide shakeup of the nation’s largest prison system.

As part of Barr’s review, the inspection team met with local health officials from surrounding communities in each of the locations to assess the broader impact of the outbreaks.

Earlier this month, Barr ordered an expedited release of prisoners to home confinement at the troubled facilities in Oakdale, Elkton and at Danbury, Connecticut, where infections had been spiking.

“We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement when appropriate to move vulnerable inmates out these institutions,” Barr said.

Attorneys for Oakdale inmates have sued for the release of hundreds of prisoners there, claiming that the government has not moved fast enough.