Updated Friday, April 24, 2020 at 8:45 p.m.
Hundreds of inmates currently housed in jails in the nation's capital are set to be transferred to the Hazelton Federal Corrections Center in Preston County. A union representing corrections officers at the Hazelton facility is calling on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to stop the transfer.
American Federation of Government Employees Local 420 president Richard Heldreth said officials at the Hazelton facility approached him earlier this week about the planned transfers. He said he was told the reason was inmate overcrowding in the District of Columbia's corrections system.
But a recent count of inmates within the D.C. corrections system shows the population is about 400 less than a month ago and is under capacity. Heldreth said he believes the planned transfer of inmates is directly related to the pandemic.
“They're not overcrowded, they actually have 20 percent less inmates than they had a month ago,” he said. “It’s an infection problem.”
Last week, a federal district judge ruled that the D.C. corrections system needed to enact proper cleaning, hygiene and social distancing measures. As of April 23, the D.C. Department of Corrections has recorded 110 cases of COVID-19 in its system, as well as one death as a result of the disease.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons shows that more than 4,000 inmates are currently housed across four facilities at Hazelton. The complex has not reported a case of COVID-19 in any inmates or corrections staff.
Heldreth said he has concerns about bringing inmates to the facility if they have been housed at other locations that have reported outbreaks of the coronavirus.
“We don't want to move a bunch of people from, say, a city like New York out into areas where there's not infections,” he said. “We still don't want to do the same thing with inmates. If you have institutions that are clean — that don't have cases — we need to do everything we can not to infect them.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons confirmed Hazelton has been identified as one of seven quarantine locations across the country.
The spokesperson said new inmates coming into the federal prison system must be quarantined for 14 days to "ensure they remain asymptomatic before being introduced into the main population" and medically cleared to be moved to their designated institution.
Asked about any planned transfers to Hazelton, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons declined to comment.
Gov. Jim Justice issued a letter Friday to U.S. Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal asking him to stop the transfers of out-of-state inmates to Hazelton and other federal facilities in West Virginia.
"While I surely undertand the need to transfer prisoners from time to time, now — in the midst of this pandemic — seems unwise and unecessary," Justice wrote. "West Virginia has put in place a great many measures designed to mitigate the spread and effects of COVID-19, and our people have very successfully implemented and followed those measure to make this state one of the states with the lowest number of COVID-19-related fatalities in the entire US."