Federal inmates arriving at Bureau of Prisons facilities from areas affected by the Zika virus are not routinely tested for the transmissible disease before joining the general prison population, notes a recent USA Today article that examined Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) documents included interviews with agency staff.
The paper noted hundreds of federal prisoners are regularly transported from Puerto Rico, where a Zika outbreak has already infected tens of thousands, to the Federal Correctional Institute in Miami and other mainland facilities.
Widespread Zika infections in Puerto Rico — about 25,000 cases have been reported, nearly all locally generated — have already led federal health officials to declare a public health emergency there. In the mainland U.S., fewer than 4,000 cases had been identified, nearly all linked to travelers visiting Zika-infected areas, with fewer than 150 cases originating in Florida. At present, there is no Zika vaccine or cure.
Named for Uganda’s Zika forest, where the virus was first discovered in 1947, the disease only reached the Western Hemisphere within the past few years. It’s commonly spread by mosquitoes who have bitten someone infected with the virus, but researchers discovered it can also be transmitted by sexual activity.
Most people exposed to the Zika virus experience only mild, temporary symptoms or no symptoms at all, but studies have found strong links between the disease and the crippling Guillain–Barré syndrome.
BOP has not yet adopted general testing of inmates transferring in from Puerto Rico or other areas with documented Zika outbreaks. Instead, the agency is relying on advice from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which so far has not recommended routine or universal Zika screening. The CDC only recommends testing for all pregnant women who live in, or have recently visited, areas with significant Zika transmissions, regardless of whether the women exhibit Zika symptoms, such as rash, fevers, joint or muscle pain, or conjunctivitis.
In September, BOP issued interim guidelines, based on CDC advice, on Zika screening and caring for inmates. Those guidelines call for Zika tests for female inmates who are pregnant or have been exposed to the disease, since a pregnant woman can transmit the virus to her fetus, causing serious birth defects, such as microencephaly, which restricts the growth of an infant’s brain and skull. A BOP representative says the agency does not keep statistics on how many female inmates have been tested, but claims no infections have yet been found.
For other patients, however, current BOP guidelines merely advise Zika testing “should be considered” if Zika-type symptoms appear, or if an inmate has a history of Zika exposure. The guidelines further recommend consulting with local health departments on whether testing is needed, and to arrange for inmate testing by public health labs.
BOP’s decision not to test all inmates arriving from Zika-affected areas has drawn fire from members of Congress in Florida, who claim it presents a hazard to inmates, BOP employees and residents of nearby areas. Workers at a federal prison near Orlando have filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), claiming BOP is not adequately addressing a known workplace hazard.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.