Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal on Friday defended his agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic amid criticism from corrections workers, inmates and civil rights attorneys that inaction of officials caused the virus to fester in prisons.
“I don’t think anybody was ready for this covid, so we’re dealing with it just as well as anybody else, and I’d be proud to say we’re doing pretty good,” Carvajal said in an interview with CNN, his first with a national news outlet since the pandemic began.
Since the pandemic reached the United States, nine federal inmates have died of the coronavirus, according to the BOP, including six at Oakdale prison in rural Louisiana, the outbreak’s epicenter in the federal prison system. As of Friday, 318 federal inmates and 163 corrections staff have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the BOP.
Inmates and corrections officers have reported shortages of masks, gloves and other protective equipment and say they’ve continued to work and serve in cramped, unsanitary conditions despite instructions from the country’s top health officials to practice social distancing, as The Washington Post has reported.
Carvajal, a career prison worker, was appointed to lead the BOP on Feb. 25 and received his first briefing on the virus two days later, according to CNN.
“It was quite overwhelming, a week or two into this job, knowing that we were going to have to deal with something like this,” he said.
Carvajal outlined the suite of steps the BOP has taken to protect inmates and staff in its 122 facilities, including ending visitations from families and attorneys, quarantining new inmates and shutting inmates in their cells for two weeks. Prison officials also started in the past week to release vulnerable inmates early, he said.
“It’s easy to critique those hot spots, but we don’t control that,” Carvajal said. “We can only control the people inside of our institutions, and we put things in place to do that.”
“I understand the criticism of the timing on it,” he added, “but that’s where I believe that experience on running prisons — and we know our population, we know what we can and can’t do and the right time to do it, and that played a big role in making the decision.”