After months of no outside contact due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will allow in-person social visits for inmates at 122 of its facilities nationwide as of Saturday, Oct. 3.
The BOP says all visits will be non-contact and social distancing between inmates and visitors will be enforced, either via the use of plexiglass, or similar barriers. Inmates in quarantine or isolation will not participate in social visiting.
Both inmates and visitors must always wear appropriate face coverings and will perform hand hygiene just before and after the visit, according to the BOP.
Visitors will also be symptom-screened and temperature-checked; visitors who are sick or symptomatic will not be allowed to visit.
The number of guests allowed in the visiting room will be based on available space when utilizing social distancing; the frequency and length of visits will be established to ensure all inmates have an opportunity to receive visits at least twice a month.
Tables, chairs and other high-touch surfaces will be disinfected between visitation groups in line with sanitation guidance.
The reinstatement of visitation comes almost seven months after the BOP froze visits at the onslaught of the pandemic. To help compensate for the suspension inmates were given 500 telephone minutes per month at no charge.
As the weeks went on and COVID-19 numbers began to rise around the country, so did the number of cases for incarcerated people presenting what many have called a health hazard.
Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates against mass incarceration said prisons and jails are amplifiers of infectious diseases such as the coronavirus, because social distancing is impossible inside and movement in and out of facilities are common.
The group says many jails around the U.S. have significantly decreased its population by releasing non-violent inmates with chronic diseases and complex medical needs who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. On the other hand, the country’s prisons have been slower to do so, resulting in several lawsuits from advocacy groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has leveled lawsuits against dozens of prisons that they said weren’t doing enough to release vulnerable detainees and force officials to implement social distancing, augment hygienic practices and expand testing.
By July, the ACLU alone filed over 30 lawsuits against prisons including Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution in Louisiana, which was once declared an epicenter of the virus.
At the time of the suit five prisoners had died and the group charged that prison officials were not moving fast enough to prevent more deaths.
Other suits followed in Dallas County and Shelby County in Memphis, Tenn., alleging unsafe conditions by not providing inmates supplies and equipment needed to stay safe from COVID-19.
The ACLU says the lawsuits in many cases have worked to make inmates safer with getting better conditions inside along with the distribution of masks, hand sanitizer and other materials.
“In response to these suits, officials have improved conditions inside and done so faster than they would have otherwise. This has unquestionably saved lives and slowed the spread of the virus.”
As of Sept. 6, there are 1,823 federal inmates and 643 BOP staff who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Since late March there have been 118 federal inmates and two BOP staff members deaths attributed to the respiratory disease. The BOP says of the inmate deaths, four occurred while on home confinement.