March 18, 2021

Warren, Booker, Durbin, Colleagues Call on DOJ Inspector General to Conduct Comprehensive Review of Bureau of Prison COVID-19 Deaths

Text of the Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) urging them to conduct a comprehensive review of all COVID-19-related deaths of incarcerated individuals in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and BOP staff since the beginning of the pandemic. In the letter, the lawmakers requested information about whether or not incarcerated individuals in BOP's custody that died as a result of COVID-19 received timely and sufficient care based on the policies BOP had in place when they became ill, if there are systemic concerns across COVID-19-related deaths, and if any incarcerated individuals who died from COVID-19 were eligible for early release.

This letter was also signed by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii,), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii.).

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 225 incarcerated individuals in BOP's custody and 4 BOP staff members have died as a result of COVID-19. Although BOP investigates each case involving the death of an individual in their custody, these one-off reviews of each individual COVID-19-related death may not be sufficient to determine system-wide failures in care across the entire federal prison system.

"A comprehensive review would not only provide a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding each individual loss of life but would also help policymakers establish whether the appropriate BOP policies were in place and being followed in each case, as well as whether new policies or practices should be implemented to reduce risk during the current pandemic and to prevent similar outbreaks in the future," wrote the lawmakers.

A recent investigation ordered by the United States District Court for the Central District of California into BOP's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak at FCI Lompoc in Lompoc, California, found that deficient care from BOP played a part in the four COVID-19-related inmate deaths at the facility. Among other issues, the report found that "the COVID-19 response at BOP Lompoc is characterized by some evidence-based strategies being superimposed on a grossly inadequate system of health care." The report also found that the BOP's internal mortality reviews, as well as the external reviews that BOP had contracted out for, can be cursory, and in some cases, failed to identify notable deficiencies in care that were relevant to the deaths in the facility. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senator Warren has been fighting to ensure the safety and well-being of incarcerated individuals. 

  • Last month, Senator Warren and Congressional Democrats reintroduced the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act, which would require the BOP, the United States Marshals Service (USMS), and state governments to collect and publicly report detailed data about COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and vaccinations in federal, state, and local correctional facilities.
  • Senators Warren, Booker, and Congresswoman Nannette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Federal Correctional Facilities COVID-19 Response Act, legislation to require weekly testing for incarcerated people and employees, fund vaccine distribution and administration, promote contact tracing, expand data collection, and increase accountability.
  • In October, Senators Warren, and Durbin urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) and BOP to act promptly to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in federal facilities by adopting a public health-driven approach to managing COVID-19, including releasing eligible individuals to home confinement and adopting procedures to medically isolate or quarantine individuals infected with COVID-19. 
  • In September, Senators Warren, Booker, and Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) requested information from USMS and private prisoner transport firm, Prisoner Transportation Services (PTS), about the steps USMS and PTS are taking to manage coronavirus spread. 
  • Last May, Senators Warren, Markey, and Congresswoman Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) wrote to BOP urging them to implement widespread COVID-19 testing of all incarcerated individuals and staff at Federal Medical Center Devens (FMC Devens) and release to home confinement vulnerable individuals who do not pose specific and substantial safety threats. 
  • In March 2020, Senator Warren and her colleagues sent letters to BOP and the three largest private prison operators asking about the policies and procedures they have to prepare for and manage a potential spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons. 
  • That same month, Senator Warren joined Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) in calling on then-President Trump to adopt and release decarceral guidelines to reduce the population of people in federal custody during the pandemic.