Prison workers union calls for action on COVID-19 outbreak at FCI Williamsburg

Updated: Jan. 11, 2021 at 7:43 AM EST
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SALTERS, S.C. (WCSC) - The president of a union representing employees of a federal prison in Williamsburg County is accusing the facility’s leadership of making a decision that led to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases behind bars.

“They made some changes on the process of what we were doing ... that allowed COVID to actually walk into the institution,” American Federation of Government Employees’ Local 525 President Stephen Pinckney said. “From there, it spread like wildfire once it got in.”

The prison in question is Federal Correctional Institution Williamsburg, a facility in the Salters area that is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Pinckney alleged that the process of screening people entering the complex to determine whether they had potential symptoms of COVID-19 symptoms was shifted from outside the facility to inside in early December.

“I really would like to see our executive staff removed for one thing because they are more concerned right now on the financial side of the institution that they are about the health and wellbeing of staff there,” Pinckney said.

FCI WIlliamsburg’s website currently states that “all visiting at this facility has been suspended until further notice.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ online COVID-19 dashboard’s data for FCI Williamsburg inmates has fluctuated significantly over the last three weeks.

Thirteen active confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates were reported on Dec. 21, with that number increasing to 24 the following day. On Monday, the agency disclosed that there were 104 confirmed active coronavirus cases among inmates, ranking FCI Williamsburg among the top 20 federal prisons in the country in terms of active cases among inmates.

However, by Wednesday, the number was down to 41. On Thursday, it decreased even further, with the Federal Bureau of Prisons reporting 33 active cases among inmates and that 89 prisoners had recovered from the virus.

Meanwhile, although the reported number of cases among FCI Williamsburg inmates continues to change on a regular basis, the number of active confirmed cases among staff members has consistently remained at eight.

After airing a story in late December about the coronavirus outbreak at FCI Williamsburg, numerous calls and emails came in from people across the country who have loved ones incarcerated at the prison.

Marshall Jenkins, an Indiana resident, said that his father is one of the FCI Williamsburg inmates who tested positive for COVID-19. He said his father’s medical status made him more vulnerable to the virus.

“He did end up catching COVID due to this large outbreak. We had no clue as the family until he called us on Dec 22 and said, ‘Hey, I’ve tested positive for COVID,’” Jenkins said. “It seems he’s getting better now, which is great, but it could have very well taken a very bad turn.”

Janet Nesbitt of North Carolina said that her son is incarcerated at FCI Williamsburg. Nesbitt says that she is worried for the health of her child and that she thinks more testing of employees is needed.

“I feel like they really need extensive testing because they’ve got to be bringing it [COVID-19],” Nesbitt said. “Because if you’re already there, and you have not been out anywhere to contract it, there’s no other way that the inmates can get it except from the staff.”

FCI Williamsburg is one of the largest employers in rural Williamsburg County. Dr. Tiffany Wright, the supervisor of Williamsburg County, said she recommends that all prison employees who live in the county who are in regular contact with people get tested at least once a month.

“I encourage our employees of FCI also when you’re home, you also have a responsibility to the people that you work alongside of that you don’t do things that could potentially put those folks when you come back to work in danger,” Wright said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined a request for an interview in December.

At the time, spokesperson Scott Taylor said in part that “COVID-19 transmission rates among staff and inmates in the Bureau of Prisons’ correctional institutions generally mirror those found in your communities,” adding that “the majority of the BOP’s positive inmates are asymptomatic and healthy.”

The agency has not yet responded to several questions about the COVID-19 conditions at FCI Williamsburg and alleged protocol changes.

Jenkins and Nesbitt both say that more communication from FCI Williamsburg regarding their loved ones is needed.

“I want a full report on what is going on with my son,” Nesbitt said. “Other families need to know what’s going on with their family members and not that ‘yeah, they are just OK.’”

UPDATE: In response to questions from Live 5 Investigates on Friday evening, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Justin Long said that “COVID-19 screening for visitors and staff at FCI Williamsburg has remained outside the secure confines of the institution since its implementation in March 2020 and conducted in accordance with CDC and BOP Guidance to reduce and eliminate COVID-19 exposures. Staff, contractors, and other visitors to the institution must undergo a COVID-19 screening and temperature check by a staff member or contractor wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) prior to entering the facility, with those who register a temperature of 100.4° Fahrenheit or higher denied access to the building.”

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