Report says Bureau of Prisons needs to do more to address staff confusion over COVID-19 policies

The pandemic has highlighted the increased health risk for people living or working in confined spaces and that is especially true for prison systems.

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked into how federal prisons have been handling COVID-19 policies.

The report said more than half of federal prison workers who responded to a survey for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) “thought the guidance was not clear” and that the guidance “was not timely” at the start of the pandemic.

“People are in close proximity in very confined spaces and the virus can spread and so it makes people in the prison, whether you are working there or you are incarcerated, it makes you vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases,” said Gretta Goodwin, a Director in the Homeland Security and Justice Team for GAO.

The report said: “BOP staff reported confusion about how to implement the guidance” such as questions over the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

It said discussions at the top about evolving Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and other protocols often didn’t trickle down to staff on the ground in a timely manner.

“It was really confusing for the staff in terms of exactly what guidelines they were needing to follow,” said Goodwin.

Goodwin said staffing shortages at federal prisons were already a problem before the pandemic and it only became tougher once COVID-19 hit.

“For the staff who weren’t out sick, they had longer shifts. They had longer hours,” said Goodwin. “If there are fewer staff, then their programs are no longer taught. So, like the drug treatment programs.”

The GAO recommended that BOP evaluate communication of COVID-19 guidance and develop a better process to share information with workers.

According to the report, “BOP concurred with these recommendations and is planning or taking actions to implement them.”

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