ORLANDO, Fla. - Despite thousands of coronavirus cases reported in prisons across the United States, the Bureau of Prisons has implemented a new policy, barring inmates from speaking out publicly about health conditions.
Family and advocates now fear the lack of transparency could be putting people in danger.
What You Need To Know
- Spectrum News 13 has made several interview requests at Sumter prison
- Those requests have been denied
- About 3,000 inmates released due to coronavirus
- More Spectrum News 13 Watchdog headlines
Spectrum News 13 Watchdog Reporter Stephanie Coueignoux has asked for months to interview inmates at the Sumter County Coleman Federal Correctional Complex. The BOP did not respond until several weeks ago when a spokesman sent an email stating due to the coronavirus, the BOP is suspending all inmate interviews indefinitely.
We’ve been covering concerns at the Coleman facility for months, with many families telling us they simply want to know if their loved ones are safe in prison.
One of those family members is Beverly Humphries, whose sister was an inmate at the Coleman minimum security facility.
For the past 21 months, Jennifer Smith was an inmate at Coleman’s minimum security facility. Beverly hasn’t been able to see her since February, after prison officials suspended all visitations following a Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak.
Then came coronavirus.
In March, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo directing the Bureau of Prisons to release some inmates on home confinement to “decrease the risks to their health."
BOP says they’ve since released more than 3,000 inmates under that order.
The agency also posted details of its safety measures, including daily temperature checks, cloth masks for inmates and staff, isolation areas for anyone with symptoms, and significantly reducing facility to facility inmate transfers.
Another change though, which they didn’t highlight on their website, is no inmates are allowed to talk. The BOP says it is for their own safety. It’s the only response we got – some three months after first requesting an interview.
In May, the BOP released Smith on home confinement. We asked the BOP to speak with Smith, and the BOP denied that request.
Humphries says, “They don’t want her to talk and what bothers me with this is she has firsthand information.”
While we’re not allowed to interview While, Humphries allowed us to speak with her sister. She read us what her sister wrote down.
Humphries relayed, “You had guards coming in and out unit to unit - which is, again, you're going into a unit that might be an isolation unit and then you're going to another unit - you're not changing your gloves, your masks, you're not even washing her hands.”
A claim BOP says on its website it addressed is ‘Phase V (five)’ of its Action Plan. That phase took effect April 1, around the time cases were spiking in Florida.
Dan Eckhart is a former BOP staff attorney at Coleman, where he represented the prison. He’s now a criminal defense attorney.
Eckhart believes the BOP denying inmate interviews is very concerning.
He says, “It’s our responsibility as taxpayers to know what’s being done with government funds.”
And holding them accountable means having access to information. It’s a pursuit Humphries is now making her personal mission.
She says, “My husband asks me all the time - why are you so obsessed with this? And…because it happened to my sister. It’s happening to other people’s sisters, other people’s moms, other people’s grandmas. And we’re supposed to speak out to those who are voiceless.”
Since the BOP said a face-to-face interview with an inmate would pose a health risk – we asked about a phone or virtual interview. BOP also denied those requests.
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