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BOC Deserves Praise, Not Scorn, For Successful COVID-19 Response: OP-ED

As director of the Bureau of Corrections (BOC) I have learned to accept criticism whenever the Bureau makes mistakes. But I never expected to
be criticized when the Bureau does its job well. Two weeks ago, the court-appointed monitors overseeing the St. Croix prison praised BOC for its COVID-19 response.

Yet, an article in yesterday’s Daily News falsely suggests that BOC did not follow CDC mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines before the COVID-19 outbreak at the St. Thomas Jail. This reporting is misleading, unbalanced, and unprofessional.

First, the Daily News never bothered to contact BOC for a comment or response before running such a sensational story, something any responsible journalist would have done.

Second, BOC gave the Daily News a copy of its Updated COVID-19 protocols in July — almost three weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak at the St. Thomas Jail. Those protocols mandate that “[a]ll staff, contractors, guests, and inmates/detainees must wear a face covering.” They also dictate that the use of common areas “be staggered to limit the size of group activities.”

These protocols squarely refute any suggestion that BOC ignored CDC mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines in the lead up to the COVID-19 outbreak at the St. Thomas Jail. Although the Bureau’s Medical Director questioned the effectiveness of these protocols in the tight confines of a prison or jail, she nevertheless recommended that they be followed and worked diligently to see them implemented. In fact, BOC distributed masks to all staff and inmates a month before the August 9 outbreak.

Yesterday’s Daily News report never mentioned the updated BOC protocols, which we sent them four months ago, even though they directly contradict the assertions in the ACLU’s court papers. Why?

Balanced journalism requires — at a minimum — that a journalist disclose
information in her possession that conflicts with a point of view being presented to the reader.

Balanced journalism also requires that the Daily News disclose to its readers that the same BOC COVID-19 protocols, alleged by the ACLU to be inadequate, have successfully kept the John A. Bell prison on St. Croix COVID-free thus far. John Bell is a much larger facility with twice as many prisoners as the St. Thomas Jail.

That brings me to my final point. Yesterday’s Daily News headline misleadingly treated the ACLU’s court filings as an established fact, rather than simply a point of view. It inaccurately suggests that there has been some finding that BOC did something wrong when, in fact, it merely reflects an unproven accusation in court papers filed by one side to a dispute. Anyone reading yesterday’s headline would assume — mistakenly — that there has been a ruling by the Court, though nothing could be further from the truth.

The article also fails to provide any context surrounding the ACLU’s court filing. Here, the ACLU is asking BOC to turn over information regarding its COVID-19 response, using as authority a seven-year-old consent decree — signed long before the virus existed. The ACLU has made similar requests of prisons and jails elsewhere and lost. Courts have found that a prison or jail’s response to COVID-19 is irrelevant to a lawsuit about prison conditions that existed before the pandemic began.

By any measure, BOC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a success — as the impartial, court-appointed monitors found last month. All BOC facilities remained free of COVID-19 for the first five months of the pandemic. John Bell, its largest facility, still has no suspected or reported coronavirus case eight months after the pandemic began. In a video conference with BOC managers just days before the outbreak at the St. Thomas Jail, CDC experts marveled that there had been no outbreak at any BOC facility and commended the Bureau for its COVID-19 protocols — the same protocols that the ACLU now questions.

OPINION By: Wynnie Testamark, Director of the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections

FOOTNOTES:

1See Suzanne Carlson, Prison Seeks Private Help to Build New Facility on St. Croix, The Virgin Islands Daily News, Oct. 30, 2020, at page 3 (“The prison has successfully kept COVID-19 from infecting inmates and staff, and [Dr. Kenneth Ray] said the monitoring team was ‘very impressed’ with the territory’s efforts despite the pandemic: ‘I think that’s a testament to their determination.’”).2 See Suzanne Carlson, Corrections Dismissed Masks Social Distancing in Lead-up to COVID-19 Outbreak at St. Thomas Jail, The Virgin Islands Daily News, November 16, 2020, at page 4. See, e.g., Sabata v. Neb. Dept. of Corr. Serv., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81937 at *7 (D. Neb. May 1, 2020) (“Simply stated, the novel coronavirus and the [Nebraska Dept. of Corrections’] response to the current pandemic are just that: novel. Therefore, the Court will not order the [Nebraska Dept. of Corrections] to disclose its COVID19 pandemic plan and any specific quarantine plans to Plaintiffs in this action, as that information is not relevant to any claim or defense in this case.”) (quoting Coleman v. Newsom, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62575 at *16 (E.D. Cal. April 4, 2020)). 5 Nationwide, more than 120,000 inmates have been infected with the coronavirus, resulting in more than 1,000 inmate deaths, as of September. Kelly Servick, Pandemic Inspires New Push to Shrink Jails and Prisons, SCIENCE (Sep. 17, 2020)) (found at https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/09/pandemic-inspires-new-push-shrinkjails-and-prisons). More than 26,000 prison staff have been infected, and 75 have died as of September 8. Willem Roper, Coronavirus Courses Through U.S. Prisons, Statista (Sep. 15, 2020) (found at https://www.statista.com/chart/21895/covid-in-prison-system/).

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