U.S. prison union official warns of coronavirus spread by inmate transfers from outbreak hotspots

WASHINGTON, March 23 (Reuters) - The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is still transferring some inmates from coronavirus hotspots such as New York City to prisons in other parts of the country, even as three prisoners tested positive for the COVID-19 respiratory illness over the weekend, a top union official said on Monday.

AFGE Council of Prison Local 33 President Shane Fausey called on Attorney General William Barr to take "unprecedented" action to temporarily stop the movement of all prisoners between facilities until the virus can be contained.

"I am imploring the attorney general of the United States to stop all inmate movement, shelter in place at least for 14 to 21 days, following the guidance of the White House press briefings," he said in a phone interview.

"We need to flatten this curve,” he added, referring to the strategy of slowing the virus' spread to prevent hospitals and healthcare systems from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department and BOP did not have any immediate comment.

The BOP, which operates 122 facilities, has taken some precautions similar to those in state and local jails and prisons by suspending social visits.

U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed on Sunday he is mulling an executive order to let BOP release some “totally nonviolent prisoners,” while criminal justice advocates are pushing Congress to include a measure in the coronavirus stimulus bill to let some elderly inmates free sooner.

The BOP's new policies do call for scaling back inmate movements, but exemptions exist for managing bed space and medical and court trips.

Fausey said the movement of inmates is particularly concerning in cases where newly processed prisoners are sent from various detention facilities in New York City into federal prison facilities in Western Pennsylvania.

New York City is the current epicenter of the national epidemic with nearly 17,000 known cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness.

Over the weekend, one inmate at a BOP detention facility in the New York borough of Brooklyn tested positive for COVID-19.

Another two inmates at a prison complex in Oakdale, Louisiana are in isolation after becoming infected, and three BOP staffers have the illness, the BOP website says.

"BOP is lagging behind the other states" in its response to COVID-19, said Inimai Chettiar, a legislative and policy director at the Justice Action Network, adding it is urgent to take action now. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch Editing by Bill Berkrot)