ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Imagine if your job made you wear a disposable paper mask for days a time, you were afraid of spreading coronavirus to co-workers, and you couldn't even quit if you felt unsafe.
That is exactly what two men serving federal sentences at the Rochester Federal Medical Center say is happening there.
"You feel the stress of it everyday. It’s scary knowing that it's there and you are being forced to go and work in a building with it there and not being given an N95 mask, and you watch the staff go in and out of there and they are not following procedures with even hand washing," said Lauren Reed. "I could bring it back to this unit and spread it back to anybody in this unit, or everybody. We all use the same bathrooms and showers. It’s a very tight space."
Reed works as a health companion in one of the hospital buildings at the prison. The Federal Bureau of Prisons facility houses 638 people, many of whom have serious medical conditions or mental health needs. As of Aug. 30, 14 men had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
According to the Admission and Orientation Handbook published on the prison's website, an inmate will "ordinarily remain on that assignment for a minimum of three months, keeping in mind that the needs of the institution take priority."
"An inmate’s request for a job change will normally not be considered by the unit team until the inmate has remained on the same job for a minimum of three months, and that consideration will normally be part of the inmate’s regular program review," the handbook states. "Work assignment changes because of the need to fill manpower quotas may be done at any time when there is a need."
Reed, scheduled to be released in March 2024, said he tried to quit his job as a health companion but was told he wasn't allowed to quit without doctor approval. Reed has asthma sand said he doesn't feel safe working in the medical unit, especially on a floor he believes has a COVID-19 patient.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesman wrote in an email that inmates who work in various roles in the medical buildings at FMC Rochester are required to wear a surgical mask and appropriate personal protective equipment depending on their job.
"Staff at FMC Rochester have worked to house inmates together based on their jobs within the institution," the spokesman wrote. "However, inmates may request a change in their jobs."
Cases among the men held at the facility began being reported in mid-August. Two inmates and a staff member who spoke with the Post Bulletin said the cases coincide with the arrival of new inmates brought in by U.S. Marshals in August.
Two staff members at FMC Rochester tested positive for COVID-19 this summer, but have since recovered, according to the Bureau of Prisons. In both instances, the staff member had left the state and tested positive upon their return to Minnesota. Neither staff member had been in the facility in the weeks before their positive test result, according to information from a bureau spokesperson.
Anthony Hill, who is scheduled to be released in August 2025, said he used to work in the hospital at FMC, but quit his job on Aug. 11.
"I had expressed my concerns for my safety working over there because I felt proper protocols weren’t being followed," Hill said. "I did that for almost a month and then it came to a point where I just felt like my safety overruled whatever reprimands they could give me."
Fellow inmates haven't been able to quit their jobs, though, Hill said, for fear of being reprimanded or put in solitary confinement and thus hurting their chances at compassionate release or relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
"It’s nerve wracking for a lot of us because they are still forcing these guys to go over there and work and I am still be forced to room in the same room," Hill said. "I sleep in the same room as the guys who go over and work."
Both Hill and Reed said while working in the hospital building, the men are given one mask to wear for the entire week.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesman wrote in an email that surgical masks were distributed to everyone -- staff and inmates -- in April. Cloth face coverings, made by Federal Prison Industries factories, were also given to inmates to preserve surgical masks for quarantine and screening purposes.
"Guidance as to when and where personal protective equipment such as N95 masks should be worn have been provided to all BOP correctional institutions (including FMC Rochester), is consistent with CDC guidance, and depends on several factors, including whether or not an institution has an active case and each employee’s job description," the spokesman wrote in an email.
Reed is hoping to be able to move to a lower security facility to escape the virus. He's put in a transfer to be moved to a minimum security camp.
"I think staff is trying, but nobody has been able to stop this virus," Reed said. "Once it gets in somewhere, it just spreads."