Wyden, Merkley, Colleagues Call on DOJ Inspector General to Conduct Comprehensive Review of Bureau of Prison COVID-19 Deaths

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today urged federal officials to conduct a comprehensive review of all COVID-19-related deaths of incarcerated individuals in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and BOP staff since the beginning of the pandemic.

In a letter from Wyden, Merkley and several colleagues to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the lawmakers requested information about whether incarcerated individuals in BOP’s custody who died as a result of COVID-19 received timely and sufficient care based on the policies BOP had in place when they became ill, if there are systemic concerns across COVID-19-related deaths, and if any incarcerated individuals who died from COVID-19 were eligible for early release.

“A comprehensive review would not only provide a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding each individual loss of life but would also help policymakers establish whether the appropriate BOP policies were in place and being followed in each case, as well as whether new policies or practices should be implemented to reduce risk during the current pandemic and to prevent similar outbreaks in the future,” wrote the lawmakers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 225 incarcerated individuals in BOP’s custody and 4 BOP staff members have died as a result of COVID-19. Although BOP investigates each case involving the death of an individual in their custody, these one-off reviews of each individual COVID-19-related death may not be sufficient to determine system-wide failures in care across the entire federal prison system.

A recent investigation ordered by the United States District Court for the Central District of California into BOP’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak at FCI Lompoc in Lompoc, California, found that deficient care from BOP played a part in the four COVID-19-related inmate deaths at the facility. Among other issues, the report found that “the COVID-19 response at BOP Lompoc is characterized by some evidence-based strategies being superimposed on a grossly inadequate system of health care.” The report also found that the BOP’s internal mortality reviews, as well as the external reviews that BOP had contracted out for, can be cursory, and in some cases, failed to identify notable deficiencies in care that were relevant to the deaths in the facility. 

Along with Wyden and Merkley, this letter was led by Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. It was also signed by Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Bob Casey, D-Pa., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Alex Padilla, D-Calif., Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

Text of the Letter (PDF)