The Federal Medical Center Fort Worth in Texas had one of the highest numbers of inmates testing positive for COVID-19 – 654 at one point. Yet the federal facility – and the entire federal prisons system actually – refused to provide testing for staff, raising concerns among correctional officers who were proud to serve but were worried they would infect their loved ones at home.
So AFGE Local 1298 officers decided to take matters into their own hands. The local reached out to Tarrant County Public Health Department and asked them to provide testing for staff. They set up tables at a parking lot near the prison on May 7 and May 13. About 150-175 staff members were tested.
Because of their high-risk jobs, the local also set up housing onsite for officers who were worried about going home and infecting their families. They set up 30 cots in an empty, two-story house that’s usually used for staff housing. Officers can come and go as they please if they want to quarantine from their families.
“It is very gratifying on the local level to get this stuff done because we know that the agency is not testing staff right now, so knowing you could be asymptomatic but still be positive for COVID was kind of scary for a lot of staff,” said Local 1298 President Gregory Watts. “The staff are very appreciative for what we did.”
The local even got recognized by the Bureau of Prisons itself. In a May 20 video message to all staff, BOP Director Michael Carvajal praised Local 1298 for getting staff tested and putting out information to the public – the local has been talking to the media about the dire situation there, including the fact that much of the spread of the virus at FMC Forth Worth is because of inmate transfers from other prisons. AFGE has demanded that BOP stop inmate transfers during the outbreak.
About half of the more than 600 inmates who tested positive have recovered, but FMC Fort Worth is still a virus hot spot. At least eight staff members have tested positive. The local is asking Congress to pass a bill to provide these front-line workers with the hazard pay they deserve.