Two U.S. senators said Wednesday that they were denied access to parts of a federal prison in Connecticut while trying to examine conditions there in response to correctional officers' complaints about a staffing shortage and lack of coronavirus precautions.
Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 itself were behind the denial, the federal Bureau of Prisons said.
Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Connecticut Democrats, visited the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution with labor union leaders and two state lawmakers. Murphy said they were barred from seeing the main women's facility but were able to see a men's unit after a “fight” to gain access.
“There was clearly a decision made to try to stop both of us from seeing some of the conditions at this prison,” Murphy said during a news conference after the visit.
“This facility, even during COVID, should be open for inspection by policymakers,” he said. “We need to see it during good times, but we also need to see it during bad times. And if the Bureau of Prisons has decided that U.S. lawmakers are not going to be able to see what is really happening inside these prisons during a crisis, that’s a problem.”
Blumenthal said prison officials rejected, at the last moment Wednesday morning, an itinerary given to the senators ahead of the visit.
“The officials here said we’d love to have you come back when COVID is over," Blumenthal said. “We came here to see conditions when COVID is the problem. That was the whole point.”
The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement that Murphy and Blumenthal were given a tour of the prison “based on current COVID-19 safety protocols.”
“For health and safety reasons, portions of the tour were adjusted by the Warden to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 following an increase in COVID-19 cases,” the statement said.
The bureau did not immediately respond to other questions about correctional officers' concerns about staffing and coronavirus protocols. A bureau spokesperson said responses were being prepared.
The senators basically were kept away from any areas where inmates were, said Shaun Boylan, a Danbury prison staffer and executive vice president of the local prison staff union, Local 1661 of the American Federation of Government Employees. He said prison officials had no objections to the original tour itinerary until Wednesday morning.
The tour was changed to include mostly empty areas, including a dining room for men and secure areas just outside the housing units, Boylan said.
The Danbury prison complex houses 1,078 inmates, according to the bureau. Murphy and the local correctional officers' union say about 40% of the inmates are in isolation or quarantine because of the coronavirus.
The virus has been spreading widely again in federal prisons across the country. The Bureau of Prisons says it oversees more than 145,000 inmates in institutions and community-based facilities.
Of the total inmates, 8,074 currently are currently infected with the coronavirus and more than 1,640 of the 36,000 staff members are infected, according to bureau data.
Staffing levels and virus infections at prisons nationwide have been among numerous concerns under outgoing bureau Director Michael Carvajal, whose departure was revealed earlier this month.
Boylan said a staffing shortage in Danbury is requiring many correctional officers to work double shifts. Officers are exhausted, morale is low and conditions are dangerous, he said.
Staffing problems also are resulting in officers working in several units, which may be helping to spread the virus, Boylan said. And it is taking too long — two days — to receive virus testing results for staff, he said.
“We don’t have the staff to stop the spread of coronavirus here because they’re using the shortened numbers of staff, and they’re going all over the place,” Boylan said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Boylan said there are just over 80 correctional officers at Danbury, compared with 115 two years ago and 72 officers short of meeting the Bureau of Prisons' own staffing guidelines. While the bureau's goal is one officer per prison unit, the Danbury staff to unit ratio is 1 to 3, he said. Thirteen officers are out of work because of the virus, he said.
The bureau has said Danbury is more than 90% staffed, but the union doesn't agree with that number.
Blumenthal said he will be asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate staffing at Danbury and other federal prisons.
Murphy, Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, also a Connecticut Democrat, earlier this month called for a federal investigation of the Danbury prison complex after saying they received reports of officials not following coronavirus protocols.
Bureau of Prisons officials have previously said they follow the COVID-19 guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.