McDowell Federal Correction Institute file

The McDowell Federal Correction Institute in Welch is pictured in the photo above.

WELCH — Federal prison guards in McDowell County are concerned that a planned influx of inmates could pose a COVID-19 risk to the correctional center and the community.

Plans are in place to soon transfer hundreds of inmates from southern states to the McDowell Federal Correctional Institute in Welch and facilities in Alderson and Hazelton, said Brian Lucas, president of Local 480, the union representing area federal correctional employees.

Lucas said the U.S. Marshals will be transferring the out-of-state inmates to the federal facilities without testing them for COVID-19 or quarantining them.

“Our concern is COVID-19 and the safety of other inmates, staff and the communities around us,” Lucas said.

Lucas said the problem stems from U.S. Marshals not following safeguards put in place by the Bureau of Prisons.

Inmates transferred through the Bureau of Prisons are tested before they leave their previous facility, tested when they reach the McDowell facility and quarantined, Lucas said.

“In the Bureau of Prisons we have these safeguards, policies and procedures in place,” Lucas said. “These guys are coming in from the U.S. Marshals, and they’re not wanting to abide by our procedures.”

Lucas said they do not want out-of-state prisoners coming into the McDowell facility and causing an outbreak.

“Nationally, some prisons have been hit very hard,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate.”

Lucas said three staff members at the McDowell prison have tested positive for the virus, but the transmission was not work-related and the employees were quarantined.

“Once someone comes in with the virus it spreads like wildfire,” Lucas said. “It’s hard to separate inmates and put them in total isolation.

“All it takes is one or two to get in our prison to infect other inmates, staff, and staffs’ families and our local communities,” he said.

Lucas noted that McDowell County is not the only community at risk, as many staff members live in Bluefield, Princeton, Beckley and Tazewell County, Va.

“Our facility, right now, doesn’t even have a doctor or medical officer on hand,” Lucas said. “We’re supposed to have one … but we haven’t had one for two years to service the prisoners. It’s scary.”

The current controversy over the transfer of inmates to West Virginia prisons is similar to one that occurred earlier this year.

However, in early May, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said that he had received assurances from U.S. Attorney General William Barr that no new out-of-state prisoners would be transferred to federal facilities in Gilmer or Hazleton during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contacted Wednesday by the Daily Telegraph, Manchin’s Communications Director Sam Runyon said, “This morning, Senator Manchin spoke with the Acting Deputy Director Derrick Driscoll and encouraged him to institute COVID-19 testing and additional safety precautions before transporting inmates. Senator Manchin is hopeful they can reach a successful outcome.”

U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said the U.S. Marshals should use the same procedures as the Bureau of Prisons if inmates must be transferred.

“I strongly fought to ensure no transfers occurred within the BOP system for as long as was feasible,” Capito said. “I believe that the U.S. Marshals Service should use the same standards and practices that the BOP uses if and when a prisoner needs to be transferred and done only when absolutely necessary if at all.”

— Contact Samantha Perry at sperry@bdtonline.com

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