Justice Dept watchdog reviewing prisons for virus safety

National Politics

FILE – In this Sept. 26, 2006, file photo a person drive through the gates of a federal prison in Oakdale, La. The federal Bureau of Prisons is locking all its 146,000 inmates in their cells for the next two weeks in an unparalleled effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as the focus shifts to the Louisiana compound, where two inmates have died and nearly 20 others remain hospitalized. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department’s inspector general will check Bureau of Prisons facilities to ensure they are following best practices to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus after hundreds of federal inmates tested positive for the virus.

The review announced Wednesday comes as the federal prison system struggles with a growing number of coronavirus cases and complaints from inmates, advocacy groups and correction officers about how officials are handling the pandemic among their 122 facilities.

Attorney General William Barr recently sent some of his closest advisers to federal prisons identified as coronavirus hot spots, including FCC Oakdale in Louisiana, where six inmates have died, a Justice Department official said.

The attorney general’s counselors were sent to observe the conditions on the ground firsthand and report back to Barr and are expected to visit other hot spot prisons in the near future, the official said. The official could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Health officials have been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of epidemics in jails and prisons, which are ideal environments for virus outbreaks.

As of Monday, 446 federal inmates and 248 Bureau of Prisons staff members had tested positive for the virus. Fifteen infected inmates have died at federal prisons across the U.S. since late March.

The inspector general’s office is conducting what it described as a “series of remote inspections” at Bureau of Prisons facilities, as well as residential re-entry centers, commonly known as halfway houses, and prisons that are contracted to hold federal inmates. The review is meant to ensure the agency is complying with the government’s guidance and best practices to prevent, manage and contain a coronavirus outbreak behind bars, according to a posting on the watchdog’s website.

The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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