Nearly 300 federal prisoners have died from COVID-19, a count that does not include deaths in privately managed prisons, NPR reports. Bureau of Prisons officials have said since the beginning of the pandemic that they have a plan to keep the situation under control, but an NPR analysis suggests a far different story. From a federal prison in Springfield, Mo., Waylon Young Bird wrote to a federal judge in 2020 that "many of us are at high risk of getting this virus because of our health conditions, the overcrowding conditions here and the uncleanliness of this prison medical center." He was unable to obtain release.
Over the past two years, thousands of other federal inmates argued the same grim position, trying to use an established process to petition for release before their time in prison effectively became a death sentence. In 2020, the death rate in federal prisons was 50 percent higher than the five years before the pandemic. Last year, it was 20 percent higher. Of those who died from COVID-19, nearly all were elderly or had a medical condition that put them at a higher risk of dying from the virus. Many of them seemed to sense their fate — and had tried to get out. And those who made their case in court often faced a slow and complicated process that was unable to meet the pace of a rapidly spreading virus. "I don't trust anything the Bureau of Prisons says," said Eric Speirs, a senior correctional officer and local union president at the federal detention center in Miami. "We've had places catch on fire with COVID."