Opinion: Why we must provide coronavirus protection for correctional officers

The threat is not so much from those on the inside, but instead, the constant contact correctional personnel and inmates have with the public


By Ray Coleman, Jr.

In a short space of time, COVID-19 has become the latest threat to both human life and the U.S. economy.

All official guidance, whether from the CDC or state health departments, has led to the reduction and cancellation of travel not only to and from areas of concern, but across the nation. Sporting events, rallies and large gatherings have also seen a drop in participation in effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, there is one area that is being severely overlooked: Corrections. 

The BOP not only restricts hand sanitizers but has a limited supply of the less effective, non-alcohol based type. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
The BOP not only restricts hand sanitizers but has a limited supply of the less effective, non-alcohol based type. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The United States houses more prisoners per capita than any other country. The federal prison system is responsible for more than 175,000 of these offenders managed by over 30,000 employees. If you had to think of a place where individuals with possible compromised immune systems live in close confinement, correctional institutions would fit the bill.

The coronavirus threat is not so much from those on the inside, but instead, the constant contact correctional personnel and inmates have with the public. Inmates in the prison system have visitors from all affected areas of the country. Unlike NY county jails, which have limited contact visits, there are currently no medical screenings or parameters in place to ensure those exposed to COVID-19 are restricted from entering visitation rooms and passing the virus, not only to the inmate population but also to the staff.

In some locations, such as the federal detention center in Tallahassee, employees are responsible for operating inmate bus transportation as per normal. This includes weekly trips to areas such as Tampa, Miami and Atlanta, all of which have been identified as locations of concern.

When you couple that with limited basic cleaning supplies in correctional facilities such as hand sanitizer, soaps, or other potent cleaners due to policy restrictions, it is the perfect storm for an employee charged with serving the public and trying to provide for his or her family to contract the virus. While Ohio has been proactive in authorizing hand sanitizer that would normally be considered contraband, the BOP not only restricts these items but has a limited supply of the less effective, non-alcohol based type. Additionally, several medical centers are located on military bases such as FMC Carswell, which is also a quarantine location for the public, so it’s only a matter of when, not if, the virus will spread there. 

Several requests have been sent from employees to administrations asking them to limit these daily operations and lower the inherent hazards of the profession. Several senators and congressional officials have asked prison officials for a plan to curtail these operations. However, in the current recruitment crisis where correctional facilities are chronically understaffed, I fear those concerns and requests are falling on deaf ears.

We should know and understand that correctional officers are a part of the law enforcement community sworn to protect and defend our communities from convicted criminals. In times like these, we owe it those officers to ensure they are protected to the greatest extent possible so that they can continue to provide the civil service they were sworn to do and keep all our communities safe. 


About the author

Ray Coleman, Jr., is the president of AFGE local 1570, a labor union representing over 200 federal correctional workers in Tallahassee, Florida. He also represents thousands of employees at  17 institutions in the southeast region as the Regional Fair Practice/EEEO Coordinator. His primary job is to teach and help offenders obtain their GED as a correctional officer turned literacy Instructor, as well as provide life skills to better these individuals upon their return to society. Ray is a service-connected combat veteran and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. 

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