For months, the Rochester Federal Medical Center managed to keep COVID-19 at bay and out of its facility. But in the past few weeks, men held there have started to fall ill with the virus, raising concerns from staff and family members whose loved ones are held there.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons facility houses 638 people, many of whom have serious medical conditions or mental health needs. As of Aug. 29, 14 men had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Citing "privacy and safety reasons," a bureau spokesperson would not answer whether the men were part of the facility's general population or if they were at the facility for medical treatment, nor would they say whether the men were in the same unit.
“We've seen what it looks like when it gets inside prisons, and most prisons don't fare well, so we're pretty concerned,” said Bill Axford, a teacher at the facility and the president of Local 3947, a prison workers union.
Axford said the new cases coincide with the arrival of new inmates, some of them from a holding facility in Oklahoma known to be a hot spot for COVID-19. The union, he said, is concerned that the U.S. Marshals are bringing men to the facility who are already sick.
“If we are going to transfer an inmate from one facility to another, we'll quarantine that inmate for 14 days and they'll get a negative COVID casee before we send them because we don't want to send COVID out into another institution or out to another community,” Axford said. “The Marshals aren't doing that. They are just picking these guys up, and in some cases, I've heard that the inmates have actually been symptomatic when they've been picked up.”
“They don't care,” he continued. “They just ship them to us. In this case, I don't believe anybody was symptomatic, but it was within days that we had our first case, and then within a week, that had jumped way up.”
Rochester resident and advocate Julie Tackett, who has a family member held in the mental health unit of FMC, said she thinks FMC has done everything it could and should do, “but they are under the umbrella of the BOP and the BOP sent them these new people and now we have to deal with it.”
According to a Bureau of Prisons spokesman, all inmates entering or leaving any federal prison facility are tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and placed in quarantine. Individuals who have reached a release date or are being transferred are placed in “a test in/out pre-release quarantine for a minimum of 14 days prior to their scheduled departure from the institution,” he wrote in an email.
"Following the quarantine, an individual who tests negative and is asymptomatic is approved to transfer/release. If the person tests positive or becomes symptomatic, they are placed in isolation and are not permitted to transfer until they are considered recovered by medical staff as determined by CDC guidelines," the email states.
Documents from the BOP state that the U.S. Marshals Service screens inmates prior to moving them to prison facilities and if an inmate is symptomatic, the BOP will not accept them.
Axford said new arrivals to FMC have been tested and quarantined, and those who were found to have the virus were put in isolation.
“So far, those inmates have only had inmates with each other, and hopefully that will stop the spread,” he said.
But Axford said staff still have one-on-one contact with those individuals in a number of situations and it's easy to contaminate yourself when taking off personal protective equipment. Two employees, one in May and one in July, tested positive for COVID-19 and have since recovered. Neither had been in the facility in the weeks leading up to their tests results.
“That's all it takes, is for one person to do that, and all of the sudden it's everywhere,” he said.
Axford filed a violation on Aug. 25 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in part for transferring sick individuals to the facility as well as possible cross-contamination issues when proper protocols weren’t followed bringing them in.
Some may think of a prison as a contained facility, but staff come in and out every day and return to their homes and families.
“A lot of us have kids at home or elderly parents, or some of our staff have underlying medical conditions themselves,” Axford said. “Everything that we've done for the last several months to keep it out of the place, everyone has been really, really doing everything they can, it's all kind of lost now and everybody is even more cautious to try to not take it home with them.”
On Wednesday, Tackett said the unit where her family member is housed hadn’t been affected, but she had heard COVID may be in more than one of the housing units.
For Nakeyia Ruoho’s father, the virus is much closer. The 18-year-old from Wisconsin said she heard from her father that a person who recently tested positive for COVID-19 was placed in the room right next to him.
Despite the close proximity, Ruoho said that her father told her “he is not worried because he thinks he'd be able to fight it off or he's not going to get it.”
“He's just been trying to stay motivated and have a good attitude about it,” she said, adding that her family doesn’t have major concerns at this point.
“He is still healthy,” she said. “We are not too worried. As long as he is not worried, I don't think we are worried about it.”
On Saturday, Ruoho said she received an email from her father that said cases had increased and that the virus was "spreading fast and they are just bringing more people in that already have COVID."
"This needs to be fixed. It will spread like wildfire here," Ruoho's father wrote to her.
In-person visits have been suspended for months, as well as the movement of the men in the facility. Both Tackett and Ruoho said they wished the facility would do fence-line visits, a practice they said is being used elsewhere.
Citing information she receives from her family member as well as other families through a private Facebook group, Tackett said that as the pandemic has continued, the men have been given a few more opportunities to access things like the store or going outside, but movement is still restricted.
Her family member, she said, has been in prison since 1992.
“He knows how to do hard time,” Tackett said. “He spent months and months and months in solitary confinement, so he knows how to survive this austerity of movement, but a lot of people who have never been incarcerated before, especially white-collar criminals who are used to living a very privileged life, they are going to find this horrifically unbearable.”