The federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed last week that it has picked the penitentiary in Thomson, Ill., as one of about a dozen "quarantine sites" around the country for inmates entering the prison system.
The news drew a response from U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, who say the bureau isn’t taking adequate precautions to prevent COVID-19 at the facility, about 50 miles from the Quad-Cities.
The bureau says this isn’t a quarantine site for those with COVID-19, but for new inmates coming into the system. The agency says it is quarantining these inmates for 14 days until they are medically cleared to move on to other institutions, and that it is taking strict precautions, including screenings and temperature checks. It says it won't accept prisoners who have symptoms of COVID-19.
However, Durbin, Duckworth and Bustos say that without testing, there is a heightened risk the coronavirus could be brought to Thomson, where, according to the Bureau of Prisons' website last week, there were no reported cases.
"Let’s be clear, screening without testing will not prevent the transfer of asymptomatic inmates with COVID-19," the three lawmakers said in a statement. The lack of testing also is a concern of the union that represents workers there.
We fully understand the worry. We share it. We have seen in other venues, such as meat packing plants and nursing homes, that COVID-19 cases can ramp up fast. And without testing, nobody really knows how widespread this disease is.
This is not just a concern for Thomson, but the entire Quad-City region. Workers at the prison live all over the area, including Clinton County, one of the 77 counties in Iowa where coronavirus-related restrictions are now being relaxed.
As of last Thursday, 1,692 inmates in the federal prison system had tested positive for COVID-19, and 33 have died, according to the bureau. The agency says that 349 staff in the system have tested positive. About 70% of the cases, according to USA Today, are concentrated at facilities in North Carolina, Texas and California. But there also is an outbreak at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, which has already transferred some inmates to Thomson. And a Wall Street Journal article last week said that more than two-thirds of the inmates who have been tested for COVID-19 have been confirmed to have the disease, "suggesting the outbreak behind bars may be more widespread than previously known."
The Bureau of Prisons did not say when the prisoners might be sent to these quarantine sites. But in addition to the coronavirus risk, this will also add to the prison’s workload — and already the union says the prison is woefully understaffed.
So far, Durbin, Duckworth and Bustos, all Democrats, are the ones who are raising questions about the designation of Thomson as a quarantine site. But this is clearly not a partisan issue. In West Virginia, the state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, has joined U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, to ask the Bureau of Prisons to reconsider its decision to tap prisons in that state as quarantine sites.
They also cited concerns that COVID-19 might be brought to their communities.
We believe this is an issue that ought to be a high priority for all the people who represent us in Congress, no matter their state or party. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has already joined with Durbin in a letter saying not enough testing is being done in the prison system as a whole, part of an effort to push the bureau to release eligible, at-risk prisoners to home confinement.
We understand the administration’s need to flexibly manage the prison system's population during this time of pandemic. But we also believe adequate protections are needed to protect inmates, staff and communities. Testing for the coronavirus has been greatly lacking across the country, but this is one area that cries out for it. We hope lawmakers throughout our region, regardless of party or state, take a keen interest in this matter and ensure that the prison population and staff are protected — and so are the people of western Illinois and eastern Iowa.
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