COs face stress, exhaustion at Texas prison with more than 600 COVID-19 cases

"We're essential staff that come in every day working through this pandemic. I think our staff deserves hazardous duty pay," a corrections officer said


By Kaley Johnson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — Robert Warner has not been able to hug his grandchildren in a month, and he has not lived inside his home since early April.

As a corrections officer at Federal Medical Center Fort Worth, Warner steps inside a prison each day where hundreds of people have tested positive for coronavirus. He and other prison staff are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and face the stress of caring for themselves, the approximately 1,400 inmates and the Dallas-Fort Worth community.

About 300 people work at the federal prison, where 641 inmates tested had positive for coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to corrections officer and local union president Gregory Watts. Six inmates have died.

Four staff members have tested positive for the virus, one of whom recovered and returned to work.

“Right now we’re on the frontlines out there,” Union Chief Steward Cheri Reibe said. “It’s very out of ordinary for the staff and inmates.”

Changes at prison

Many of the staff are stressed and tired, Reibe said.

Procedures and the atmosphere in the prison have changed since the first inmate tested positive on April 8. Inmates used to cook meals and eat together, but now officers make a sack lunch and a hot dinner for the inmates and deliver them to their units.

Officers also do the inmates’ laundry and bring them items from the commissary, Watts said.

Since the prison went on lockdown in early April, the recreation room shut down and inmates’ time outdoors was limited, although the TV room remains open. Inmates are allowed 30 minutes in the yard about once a week, Watts said.

The combination of a spreading virus and few distractions has increased tensions at the prison.

“Staff are working long hours,” Reibe said. “They’re working with inmates who are in a position of being in the housing unit for the majority of the day, which creates unrest among them.”

About 50 additional staff members joined the staff at FMC Fort Worth in late April “to alleviate the exhaustion and anxiety” staff are feeling, Reibe said.

“They come in and they are very scared,” Watts said. “They thought they were doing a desk job and now they’re inside the fences of a prison, so it got (really) real for them today.”

Protection against the virus

Staff wear N95 respirator masks, shoe covers and full gowns inside infected units. They also receive daily temperature checks and are provided hand sanitizer, Reibe said.

Officers not only try and protect themselves from the virus, but they also take measures to protect their families. Reibe said many of the staff members are not living at home because they don’t want to bring coronavirus to their families. The union set up housing for those who do not want to risk infecting their loved ones.

Warner, who has worked at the prison for 30 years, said he has been living in an RV behind his home for at least a month because his brother has a chronic lung disease. When his grandchildren ask for a hug, he has to tell them no.

“I haven’t been by my wife in 30 days,” Warner, who is the vice president of the local union, said.

Warner rides with inmates to John Peter Smith Hospital if they need medical care. One week in early May, he escorted inmates to JPS seven days in a row. Once at JPS, he might be stuck at the hospital for eight to 16 hours if there isn’t anyone to relieve him.

Warner said his family is constantly worried about whether he has enough PPE, although he reassures them the prison has plenty.

Zach Ward, also a union member and correctional officer at the prison, said staff and inmates are scared and concerned about the virus. Directives seem to constantly change, and communication from the Bureau of Prisons is not always clear, he said.

He has been living at home but sleeps in a guest bedroom. He and his wife sit on opposite sides of the living room and she has not been able to visit her older parents. His wife has been quarantining at home while he does the grocery shopping and errands.

“She’s very stressed,” Ward said.

The union coordinated with Tarrant County Public Health to provide testing for staff on May 7 and Wednesday. About 100 staff members were tested May 7, but the results were not yet available as of Wednesday.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said Tuesday he wanted all staff at the prison to be tested for coronavirus, although the county does not have authority over the prison or staff. He said he worries about staff going into the community and infected the general public.

Fighting for hazard pay

Much of the spread of the virus at FMC Fort Worth is because inmates continue to be transferred into the prison, Watts and Warner said.

On Monday, the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that FMC Fort Worth staff are part of, demanded the Bureau of Prisons stop the transfer of inmates between federal facilities.

If the Department of Justice or the U.S. Marshals Service demands an inmate’s transfer, the BOP cannot decline. However, Watts and Warner said the BOP should push back against transfers and get the White House or U.S. attorney general involved.

“These transfers pose a threat not only to the correctional officers on the front lines of this pandemic, but also to their families and the communities where they work and live,” said AFGE President Everett Kelley in a May 5 letter to BOP Director Michael Carvajal.

The American Federation of Government Employees filed a lawsuit in March against the federal government demanding hazard pay for federal workers.

“We’re essential staff that come in every day working through this pandemic,” Watts said. “I think our staff deserves hazardous duty pay.”

At the union’s urging, a bi-partisan group of 19 senators called on the Trump administration Monday to use existing hazard pay authority to provide a 25% pay increase for federal workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, according to the AFGE website.

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, Reibe said she is proud of the prison’s staff.

“Even through the pandemic and the amount of inmate positives we have, we’ve had so many staff show up and really do what’s needed to be done behind that fence,” she said. “And it takes everybody together to get through something like this.”

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©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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