On April 1, 2020, the Federal Bureau of Prisons played the biggest April Fool’s joke ever.  However, the bad part for inmates was, it wasn’t a joke.  That was the day the BOP instituted their nationwide lockdown for all federal prisons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. federal prisons are divided into four security levels:  high, medium, low, and minimum (or “camps”).  Most all high- and medium-security prisons have individual cells with toilets in the cells.  Most lows and camps are open dorm with a shared restroom area.  Obviously the “lows” and camps would have more of a problem keeping individual inmates separate.

I, personally, am at FCI-Petersburg, a medium-security prison.  I can only report with any authority on what has taken place at this institution, although I have heard rumors about events at other prisons which I cannot verify.

For a week or so prior to the April 1st lockdown, this institution started a “modified” lockdown.  During this period, inmates were allowed out of their cells during regular hours, but were to remain in their units.  Individual units were supposed to be kept separate (for the most part) while going to the Chow Hall and when going to Recreation.  However, sometimes my unit would go to Chow with one unit and sometimes another.  Also, Unicor (prison industry) was still working at this time in which inmates from all units mingled.  It was very haphazard.

According to the memo which was handed out on April 1 explaining the details of the lockdown, inmates would be locked in their cells and would only be let out for 1 1/2 hour on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to shower and use the phone and the computer, one tier at a time (there are two tiers per unit).  Masks were handed out and all inmates would be required to wear a mask at all times when they were out of their cell.

All meals would be brought to the units from that day forward and passed (through our tray slot) to each individual cell.  We would receive a box meal for breakfast and dinner, and a hot tray for lunch.

In addition to being locked down, all visits were also canceled.  And the BOP, unlike many state prisons, doesn’t have video visits, so everyone was cut off from family and friends.  The only bright spot is that the BOP allowed free five minute phone calls so we could at least speak with our loved ones.

I was told, but cannot confirm, that the inmates at Butner Low (which is open dorm) were told to remain in their cubicles and not move around and at some point rioted or at least refused to comply with these orders.

This lockdown went on without change until sometime in May, perhaps the week of the 18th, when we were told that in order to get “exercise,” each tier in each unit would walk separately to the Chow Hall to pick up our lunch tray and box dinner meal.

This was the first time we were allowed outside since April 1, but the walk there and back takes only five minutes at most, and we were immediately locked down again.

On May 29th or so, a memo was placed on the computer announcing that the following week, each unit would be allowed 35 minutes to go outside to Recreation to walk the track one day per week, plus, we would then be allowed 1 1/2 hour out of our cells on the other four days Monday through Friday, and then locked back in our cells for the weekend.

The problem with this was, you could choose to go to Rec -or- to take a shower, use the phone/computer, but not both.  Going out to Rec, getting all sweaty, and not being able to take a shower didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

To complicate matters further, my unit’s Rec day was Monday.  That meant that the last day you could take a shower was Friday.  You’d be locked in your cell all weekend, go to Rec on Monday and get all sweaty, then still not be able to shower until Tuesday.

The first day this occurred was on June 1, and some guys from my unit did actually go to Rec.  The trick was on them.  Beginning the following day, June 2, the entire compound (and BOP) went on a full lockdown due to the riots going on across the country.  No one was let out that entire week.  We were allowed a five minute shower per cell on Friday and that’s it.

Fortunately, on the week of June 8th, the “riot” lockdown ended and we went back to being let out for 1 1/2 hour on Monday through Friday.

Another change came the following week.  Beginning on June 15th, the entire unit would be let out of our cells from about 8:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.  For some inexplicable reason, we would then be locked down again in our cells until our unit was called for lunch, usually between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.  At that time we were locked back in our cells until about 12:00 p.m. to 12:30 p.m., when we were again let out until 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.  In addition, each unit was allowed one hour at Rec per week.  Evenings and weekend were still spent locked down.

At some point in May, they started clearing out individual cells in each unit to serve as quarantine cells, in the event that an inmate had to go off-compound for a medical visit or some other reason.  In addition, all of the top tier of one of the units was cleared out to serve as a quarantine unit for those inmates being released from prison.  So, we’ve been locked in our cells and units for three months now under quarantine, but in order to get released they move you to another unit to be placed in another cell for two to three weeks under quarantine.

Another added twist which began around June 10th, is that during the week when we walk to the Chow Hall to pick up our lunch and dinner, we had to be in full uniforms.  So, they let us out of our cells during the midday lockdown, we put on our uniforms, walk to Cho and pick up our trays and walk back (which takes about 5 minutes), then immediately take off our uniforms again and get comfortable.

The latest development is that beginning July 1, we would begin to walk to the Chow Hall to also pick up breakfast and walk back.  This probably just saves them meals for those who don’t want to get up and walk to the Chow Hall.  Again, we are required to put on our uniforms for the 5 minute walk to the Chow Hall and back, and then everyone takes them off again.  An added bonus is that for the first time since March, we received a hot breakfast (those box meals were getting monotonous).  Plus, it appears they’ve done away with the lunchtime lockdown (unless that was just our officer’s choice).

Personally, this was–and continues to be–the longest lockdown by far that I have experienced in prison.  It can be very difficult to remain locked in a cell with someone for that long a period of time.  This has not been health physically or mentally for anyone.  I have a friend who works in Suicide Watch, and he said they have been busier than ever before during this time period.

Some inmates here are able to email friends in other prisons via a friend or family member who forwards these emails.  I have been told through these inmates–but cannot verify–that many or most other prisons are back on their regular schedules and are just required to wear masks.  I was further told that when someone asked the Warden here about this, he replied that there have been no cases at this prison and he intends to keep in that way.  If this is true, we are being punished for being healthy.

On a personal note, this lockdown is really getting to me as it is to every inmate on this compound.  As I’ve stated, it’s not healthy physically or mentally.  We have been locked down for three full months now in complete isolation.  No one sees any logic in continuing to keep us locked down when it is impossible for any inmate on this compound to have contracted COVID-19.  But as the old saying goes, expecting logic or common sense from a BOP staff member is like trying to get blood out of a turnip.

When this whole lockdown started, I really didn’t expect it to last for long.  Now, I am beginning to think that the senior staff here are going to continue keeping us locked down for as long as they think they can get away with it.

–Kelly R. Jones

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Leave a Comment

Recommended for you

First Step Act FAQs: Criminal Justice Reform in Action

On November 14, 2018, criminal justice and prison reform advocates finally heard what they had wanted to hear for almost a year: President Donald Trump is “thrilled to announce his support” for the bipartisan First Step Act criminal justice reform legislation. With President Trump’s support of this legislation the last true obstacle to the First…

First Step Act – August 2018 Update

In May 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the First Step Act on a bipartisan vote of 360-59. Since then, the First Step Act has been assailed by some on the political right as being “soft on crime,” and on the political left for not going far enough to address unfair sentencing practices. I…

Federal Sentencing Guidelines Amendment Hearing

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is back to work with the Senate’s confirmation of two additional Sentencing Commissioners. The Commission has scheduled a hearing on April 18, 2017, to discuss amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for 2017. Some of the proposed amendments include: An amendment that would provide a lower base offense level for first-time offenders.…