The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is reporting five positive cases of COVID-19 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Gilmer County, West Virginia, less than two weeks after 124 out-of-state prisoners in quarantine were transferred to the state.
The BOP did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but prison officials allegedly identified the four most recent positive cases through a faster form of testing, according to corrections officer Derek Crihfield. Crihfield is the local president of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing staff at FCI Gilmer.
Crihfield said executive staff at Gilmer notified the union they were discontinuing the faster tests, offered through Abbott laboratory. Officials said there was concern the tests were both less accurate and could add to the total positive count of coronavirus cases at the facility, according to Crihfield.
“They feel no need to test the inmates because all it's going to do is run the numbers up,” Crihfield said of officials. “We're going have to report a bunch of numbers to Gilmer County, and then it's going to hold us up from being able to transfer the inmates out somewhere else.”
The first positive prisoner at Gilmer was reported earlier in May, after being tested at a local hospital. Crihfield said all five positive prisoners, the last four of which seem asymptomatic, are being isolated from all other incarcerated individuals.
These five are among a total 124 prisoners that the BOP transferred to Gilmer on April 28. The BOP moved them to the medium security correctional facility after designating the institution one of seven quarantine sites.
Crihfield says the BOP assured staff at Gilmer that these prisoners had minimal contact with the coronavirus before their transfer. With a growing number of positive COVID-19 cases, he said he is concerned the BOP might continue to transfer an unclear number of asymptomatic prisoners to other facilities, spreading the disease.
“We didn’t want to be the quarantine site, but now we have a duty to make sure these guys are clear, and not just asymptomatic,” Crihfield said. “Because we don't want to not test an inmate, send him to the next institution as asymptomatic, and then he spreads it within that institution. That kind of defeats the whole purpose of the quarantine site if we're just sending these guys out without testing them.”
U.S. Attorney General William Barr told U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Friday he was stopping future transfers to Gilmer and the Hazelton Federal Correctional Center in Preston County, which also had been a designated quarantine site. Union leaders report Hazelton has not received any new transfers.
Before the transfer on April 28, Gilmer FCI had roughly 4,000 prisoners.
When dealing with the five prisoners who are isolated because they’ve tested positive, Crihfield says the BOP has provided protective wear and well-fitting N95 face masks to staff.
So far, Crihfield says no corrections officers or nonuniform staff have tested positive. FCI Gilmer is not testing its staff, but they have access to outside testing. Still, he said there has not been enough communication by prison officials with the local community, which has caused some tension.
“People are afraid of interacting with our staff,” Crihfield said. “I'd like to stress that we have the proper PPE. And at the end of the day, it's our job, we have to do it. And we didn't vote to have these guys come here. We didn't want them here. But we have to, you know, we have a job to do and we have to do it.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.