Rural Communities Needlessly Risk Covid-19 From Prisons

Forbes, Judy Stone

In the beautiful Appalachian Mountains between Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, with a population of 85 (2010), and Friendsville, Maryland, five times larger, lies Hazelton Federal Correctional Institution (FCI). The area is otherwise known for whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny River and its scenic beauty. Despite the bucolic setting, Hazelton was also nicknamed “Misery Mountain,” for its high rate of inmate murders, including mob boss Whitey Bulger.

In May, two West Virginia prisons, FCI Gilmer (in central WV) and FCI Hazelton were designated to be quarantine sites for the entire Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system. A number of prisoners were to be transferred from overcrowded DC jails before being sent yet again to another facility after 14 days of quarantine. Part of the objection to the initial transfer was that the BOP screening of prisoners for Covid-19 included a temperature check and questions, but no actual testing for Covid-19. Gilmer received 124 inmates and promptly had an outbreak affecting at least 83 prisoners and additional staff.

After much brouhaha and lobbying by Governor Jim Justice and Senator Joe Manchin, the area was granted a reprieve and Attorney General Bill Barr promised that no prisoners would be sent there. NIMBY wins again.

We in Western Maryland recently learned that the US Marshals’ Service (USMS) has begun transferring prisoners to Hazelton FCI without taking adequate precautions, endangering the area’s rural communities. Why is this?

Rural communities have generally older, more ill, and often poorer residents than elsewhere. They tend to have higher percentages of smoking, obesity and high blood pressure issues, than do urban dwellers.

At the same time, 132 rural hospitals have closed in just the past ten years. The Justice Collaborative recently reported that 12% of people who are jailed nationally—up to a third in some areas—are in communities without critical care resources.