Federal prison officials order system-wide lockdown in bid to limit coronavirus spread

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Federal prison officials ordered a system-wide lockdown across the agency's 122 facilities in an attempt to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The directive, issued by Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, takes effect Wednesday and will last for at least 14 days.

"Inmates in every institution will be secured in their assigned cells/quarters to decrease the spread of the virus," the agency said Tuesday. "This modification to our action plan is based on health concerns, not disruptive inmate behavior."

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The action by the nation's largest prison system comes just days after the bureau reported its first virus-related death in Louisiana, and as the numbers of infected inmates and staffers have increased.

At least 28 inmates and 24 staffers have tested positive for the virus, the agency reported Tuesday.

Patrick Jones, a 49-year-old drug offender who had been serving a 27-year term at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution, died Saturday after he tested positive for the virus earlier this month.

Officials said Jones had "long-term, pre-existing medical conditions," placing him at greater risk. The inmate had been housed at the low-security Oakdale facility since April 2017.

His death comes after Attorney General William Barr directed federal prison authorities to begin identifying more elderly and medically compromised inmates for home confinement to avoid a larger outbreak.

Lawmakers and civil rights advocates have repeatedly urged the Justice Department in recent days to reduce the number of vulnerable prisoners who would be most at risk of infection inside the nation's largest detention system.

Barr acknowledged that there were rising "concerns" for the plight of the 170,000 federal prisoners and the 36,000 staffers who are in regular and close contact with the inmates everyday.

While the attorney expressed confidence in the agency's capacity shield prisoners from disease, he said "there are some at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement rather than in BOP facilities."

Barr's directive also follows the actions of an increasing number of state and local officials who have released thousands of prisoners from jails to guard against larger outbreaks in their facilities. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Federal prison officials order system-wide lockdown