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Loved ones of federal prisoners, faith leaders ask new BOP bi-partisan caucus to prioritize health and safety of incarcerated persons

New bi-partisan committee has potential, but should also take the needs of incarcerated persons into consideration

In response to recent news that Pennsylvania Rep. Fred Keller has created the bipartisan Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Reform Caucus to help bring transparency and accountability to the Bureau, the Ad Hoc Group of Loved Ones of Indigenous People in Federal Prisons released the following response:

“We applaud the members of the bi-partisan Bureau of Prisons Reform Caucus for taking a small, but important first step to ensure that the Bureau’s resources, staff, policies, and practices are managed more transparently and with accountability. At the core of this issue is community health and safety and we hope this caucus will make decisions that serve the best interests of our communities, which include the incarcerated persons who often bear the brunt of poor decision making within federal facilities.”

The group has advocated for the Bureau to release more qualifying federal incarcerated persons into home release programs and to more stringently adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, as mandated by the CARES Act and two memos issued by Attorney General William Barr. Along with Keller, the new caucus will be composed of Reps. Rodney Davis of Illinois (Rep.), Andy Kim of New Jersey (Dem.), Elise Stefanik of New York (Rep.), and Matt Cartwright (Dem.) and Glen Thompson of Pennsylvania (Rep.).

On Wednesday, August 12, the ad hoc group, composed of loved ones of indigenous men and women incarcerated for protesting dangerous pipeline projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), received the support of more than 500 faith leaders and approximately 50 institutions in a letter to Bureau Director Michael Carvajal, several of his high-ranking staff, and AG Barr (letter attached).

Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, CEO and President of the Massachusetts-based Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights non-profit, urged the newly formed caucus to not discount the needs of those incarcerated when implementing new policies and practices for the Bureau’s oversight.

“While the creation of this caucus holds promise, this is just the first step in a long process to ensure that an agency with billions of dollars in financial resources and greater than 36,000 employees is managed in a way that best serves all of us, including the thousands of incarcerated persons held in facilities across the nation,” said Morn, who signed on to the letter. “During a time rife with heavily partisan politics, a contentious presidential election just months away, and a pandemic that still has us within its grip, we are called, as individuals and within our communities, to compassionate action. That action must be rooted in a deep concern for those at risk of contracting COVID-19 through no fault of their own. The people incarcerated both in our federal, state, and local prisons and jails fall within that category. Our collective hope is that this caucus not only demands transparency and accountability from the Bureau, but that its actions align with the best interests of those who are held within federal facilities.”

The Bureau has come under fire in recent months for inefficiencies and glaring missteps that have jeopardized the safety of incarcerated persons and prison staff. In an August 13 piece, The Marshall Project reported that U.S. marshals, responsible for the transport of federal prisoners, were shuttling incarcerated persons between facilities without testing them for coronavirus prior to their transfer.

In a May article in The Progressive, Michael “Rattler” Markus, an Indigenous water protector serving a three-year federal prison sentence for his role in the DAPL demonstrations, alleged that, “There are 62 men sharing three toilets, one urinal, three showers, and five sinks,” at the Minnesota facility where he’s housed. Describing the conditions as living “in a bubble,” Markus referred to the staff and guards as “germ carriers.”

As of August 14, 113 federal incarcerated persons have succumbed to coronavirus, up from 111 on the day the faith letter was sent to Bureau officials.

Original press statement here.