LISBON — A new petition seeks the release of Federal Correctional Institution Elkton inmates who are the most vulnerable to the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Meanwhile, a government employee union is suing for hazard pay due to the pandemic.
‘PEOPLE AT ELKTON ARE DYING’
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center on Monday filed a class action habeas corpus petition to allow the immediate release, furlough or home confinement of “likely hundreds” of Elkton inmates who are at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, including: those who are more than 50 years old; have chronic lung disease or asthma; have serious heart conditions; or who are immunocompromised.
“People at Elkton are dying. The situation is particularly dire, even compared to other corrections facilities,” said David Carey, ACLU of Ohio attorney. “We've already seen that prisons are tinderboxes for COVID-19 because people are forced to exist in close, shared spaces for eating, sleeping and bathing. Our clients, like everyone else in Elkton, are clustered together and completely unable to practice social distancing. Time is of the essence, and every day that goes by allows this disease to spread both inside and outside the prison walls. Further delay will result in further death.”
The prison has reported the deaths of three inmates since the outbreak began. The bureau has also reported six inmate deaths at its low-security facility in Oakdale, La., and four deaths within the last two days at its medium-security facility in Butner, N.C.
As of Monday, the Bureau of Prisons reported 39 total confirmed cases at FCI Elkton, including 24 inmates and 15 employees.
According to Joseph Mayle, president of the AFGE Local 607 which represents the Lisbon prison workers, on Monday, 61 inmates were in quarantine, including 51 who were in isolation. Another 37 inmates are hospitalized outside the facility, 18 of whom have been placed on ventilators.
The prison and its satellite facility currently house more than 2,400 inmates, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
The ACLU highlighted three FCI Elkton inmates represented in the suit:
Eric Bellamy, 52, has a history of “serious heart problems.” He’s housed with two others in a 6-foot by 8-foot area and is “constantly” within a couple feet of others.
Kendal Nelson is an asthmatic with active coronary heart disease who uses a CPAP machine and has had a prior heart attack.
Craig Wilson, who has had chronic asthma since childhood, said being in forced proximity to other inmates who may be sick feels like he’s “been handed a death sentence.”
The U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month acknowledged federal prisons in Lisbon and Oakdale, La., were struggling to contain the virus and suggested early release or home confinement measures, but the ACLU on Monday called prisons’ efforts thus far “slow, half-hearted and inadequate.”
Mayle said Monday he has not seen any new incoming inmates since a temporary suspension on inmate movement in or out of the Lisbon prison took effect last week.
OFFICERS SEEK HAZARD PAY
Mayle and other Elkton correctional officers are represented in a lawsuit seeking hazard pay for AFGE union workers in various federal departments, including the Bureau of Prisons.
Pay schedule employees should be entitled to 25 percent extra and wage employees to an extra 8 percent under Title 5 of the federal pay system for being exposed to a “virulent biological” like COVID-19, according to the complaint filed against the federal government late last month by AFGE and the law firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch of Washington, D.C.
“Federal employees are risking their lives and the lives of their families every day when they leave their homes. As just one example, federal prisons are already dangerously understaffed, and now they are a petri dish for COVID-19. Yet, tens of thousands of Bureau of Prisons employees are still showing up to do their job every day,” said Heidi Burakiewicz, law firm partner.
Mayle told Mahoning Matters last week officers under doctor’s orders to self-quarantine after being exposed to the virus are still required to come to work. Those who decline risk losing personal sick leave, or are offered “advance” sick leave which must later be repaid, he said.
Though Elkton corrections officers are screened for virus symptoms before work and sent home if they have a high-grade fever, they’re not offered extra sick leave due to the pandemic, similar to what the Families First Coronavirus Response Act granted private sector workers.
“[The bureau’s] doing nothing to actually help us,” Mayle said. “It’s exacerbating the problem. We work in all different areas of this institution. One day I might be working next to an inmate that I’ve shaken down and been exposed [to]. … I could possibly be a carrier or spreading the virus. They’re telling us, ‘No, you have to come to work.’”
He said the federal prison system is still operating at bare minimum staffing levels based on new “mission critical” standards set in 2005. The bureau cut another 6,000 positions in the last few years, he said. There’s also no required ratio of prison employees to inmates, he said.
Mayle said his officers “have anxiety. They’re anxious. And they’re angry.”
“We know that when we come to work we could get assaulted; we could get spit on; feces thrown on us … even die,” Mayle said. “At no time did we think we would be taking something here home that could possibly be putting our spouses or family in danger.”
A federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson acknowledged Mahoning Matters’ Thursday request for comment on several issues relating to FCI Elkton, but did not respond to any of the questions as of Monday.