WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today delivered his opening statement during the Federal Bureau of Prisons oversight hearing with Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal. Durbin argued more must be done in BOP facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as transferring vulnerable inmates to home confinement, and vaccinate inmates and staff. He also advocated for prison reform policies that fully implement the First Step Act, end mass incarceration and inhumane practices like long-term solitary confinement, and fix chronic understaffing issues at BOP.
“For years, I have sought to address the injustices and challenges that impact the lives of incarcerated families—along with the staff who are responsible, the men and women who go into these federal prisons and work there, their health and wellbeing is our concern certainly…We still have a lot of work to do.”
“At times, the infection rate for the federal prison population has been nearly six times higher than in the community at large. As a result, 230 incarcerated individuals, at least, have died from COVID-19—nearly all of whom had preexisting conditions that made them particularly and obviously vulnerable. Several were within months of being released. And 55 died after their request for compassionate release was denied or while their request was pending. One preventable death was…Andrea High Bear, [who] was eight months pregnant when BOP officials sent her to the Federal Medical Center in Carswell. She came down with COVID-19 and gave birth to her premature daughter while on a ventilator. Nearly a month later, Ms. High Bear died, without ever getting a chance to hold her baby.”
“Thousands of BOP staff members have also contracted COVID-19, and at least four have passed away—including Ruark “Mack” Macarthur, a 42-year-old correctional officer at the federal penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois.”
“These were preventable deaths. It’s clear that the Bureau has been far too rigid in approving transfers to home confinement and compassionate release to reduce prison populations and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, this is part of a broader pattern. The Bureau has failed to implement many of the First Step Act’s reforms.”
“The law [First Step Act] also mandates that BOP provide all prisoners opportunities to participate in programming to prepare them to return to their communities. However, many inmates still struggle to access programming to help vocational skills and receive mental health and other services.”
“The Americans working in our prison system are over-worked, over-extended, and under-supported. As a result, incarcerated individuals and the communities to which they will return are put at risk.”
“Simply put, our prison system is failing – it’s failing to fulfill its fundamental purpose: the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals. As I said, most of the individuals will return to society—and instead of preparing them, we are failing them, and failing the American people who want safety in our communities.”
“I am troubled that the number of federal inmates in restrictive housing increased significantly over the last four years. I’m gravely concerned that during the pandemic, the Bureau has used extensive solitary confinement as a means to enforce social distancing. You just can’t separate people 23 hours a day without an impact on their mental health.”
“We can’t keep wasting valuable resources and taxpayer dollars to let people languish in prison. More than wasteful, it’s inhumane. Too many lives have been lost. Too many spirits have been broken by abuse and mistreatment. And too many families have been torn apart.”
Video of Durbin’s opening statement is available here.
Audio of Durbin’s opening statement is available here.
Footage of Durbin’s opening statement is available here for TV Stations.