Unnecessary and Complicated Transfers Are Spreading COVID in Federal Prisons

When I began my interview with Brett Ellis, a federal prisoner at FCI Seagoville in Seagoville, Texas, he introduced himself by saying matter-of-factly, “I’m CONVICT-19, and I tested positive.”

Perplexed and somewhat confused, I responded, “You mean COVID-19,” to which he immediately corrected me, insisting, “No, CONVICT-19, that’s what the marshals and the guards call me, and that was before I tested positive.” He continued, “In fact, I’m only in prison for 19 days, so getting COVID was about the only thing I had time to do.”

Ellis’s story is just one of thousands of similar stories of federal prisoners who are routinely subject to a series of complicated and unnecessary transfers requiring air, bus, and van transport from federally contracted county jails to a number of federal facilities including detention centers, transfer centers and holdover centers in what has become another kind of epidemic altogether — one that is worsening the already-prolific spread of the pandemic throughout the U.S. prison system.

The U.S. government designates Ellis “Federal Inmate 22319-031.” He happened to arrive as the last of 19 prisoners off a prison transport bus. As FCI Seagoville’s intake guards conducted roll call, each prisoner entering the building would be initially identified by his seat number. Ellis was number 19 out of 19 prisoners arriving, so they initially called him “19.” Coincidentally, the prison officially uses the last two digits of a prisoner’s primary number to separate prisoners into manageable groups for processing and services. Ellis’s number happened to be 22319, and he recalled moving through issue and dress-out while being summoned at each stop. “Yo, 19! Uniform pick-up, now!” “19! Commissary up!” “Where’s 19? Boots and laces! Take ’em or leave ’em! Let’s go 19!”

Ellis was sent back to prison on a probation violation for having the name and phone number of a person convicted of a felony — his best friend — listed in his cellphone. Of course, Ellis was permitted to have the phone, but he had not received permission from probation to have his best friend’s name and number as a contact. For this infraction, Ellis would be subject to a massive investigation, a revocation hearing, a probation violation and a newly imposed sentence of six months in prison.

It would take the system five and a half months just to deliver him from his home in Gardner, Kansas, to Seagoville — his assigned custody location. After several endless bus rides, private prison overnights, nationwide airlifts, and van transports, he would only have 19 days left to serve in prison. Back in Kansas, he asked the U.S. Marshals why he couldn’t just stay at the private prison, CoreCivic-Leavenworth, where he started, to which, the officer responded, “Everyone’s gotta’ eat.”

Ellis had been originally arrested in 2009, and had never been in trouble with the law. He had no criminal history. He had no history of violence. He had no hands-on victim with his charge. When he was arrested, all he wanted to do was accept responsibility, plead guilty, serve his time in good faith and return home. The system, however, would simply not allow that.

He had been initially arrested 11 years previous for possession of an illicit image depicting a minor that was recovered from his computer’s hard drive. The image was captured from an illegal website that he may or may not have visited — he simply says he doesn’t remember. He admits he had clicked on a plethora of taboo websites. Ellis accepted his fate. He took responsibility and cooperated fully. He agreed to plead guilty to put all this behind him. Unfortunately, the U.S. criminal legal system does not allow for an efficient prosecution when so many departments, agencies and civil servants, all “gotta’ eat.”

Ellis started this long and arduous criminal proceeding in 2009 when agents first arrived on his doorstep — 11 men deep, guns drawn, battering ram deployed, chaos and pandemonium as officers screamed, “get on the ground!” The first question Ellis asked himself was, “How did they know which websites I had visited?” The fed’s international cyber-crimes task force had been watching his surfing activities for more than two years before they orchestrated the siege.

He was then scooped up by the tactical team and delivered to CoreCivic-Leavenworth near his home. While housed under a federal government contract over the next few months, he would await his fate. U.S. Marshals would begin a series of transports to and from the federal court as part of the arraignment process. Ellis would be returned in five months for his official plea hearing. He would sit around at the holdover facility for another nine months, until the date of his formal sentencing hearing. Finally, he would receive a term of six years imprisonment for what the court would describe as egregious and inappropriate behavior.

By then reduced in the eyes of the guards to simply “CONVICT-19,” Ellis would be transferred by bus, airlift and transport van in 2012 to his destination at FCI La Tuna in New Mexico, where he would serve out his original sentence. Others at La Tuna serving time for similar “non-contact” computer offenses commiserated about prison terms exceeding 12, 15, even 20 years. Six years, Ellis thought, must be a walk in the park.

Ellis would eventually complete his term of imprisonment in February 2018 and be released as a “model” prisoner. He would be returned home with no infractions, no violations, but also with no formal rehabilitation or behavioral counseling except that which he initiated on his own. Despite having only a 1.5 percent chance of reoffending, he would face a 63 percent chance of returning to prison on a non-offense probation violation, so he intended to “walk on eggshells,” as he put it. Upon release, he would begin his eight years of supervision under the watchful eye of the U.S. Office of Probation. He would become one of nearly a million individuals on the sex offender registry.

Ellis eventually landed full-time employment in 2018 at a neighborhood grocery store. He attended all his required behavioral therapy meetings. He adhered to his electronic monitoring obligations. He sat for random polygraph exams, and he consistently reported to his eastern district probation officer. As a precaution for his fellow co-workers and grocery store customers, Ellis would meticulously follow all COVID-related protocols including wearing a mask, physical distancing, washing his hands, and receiving intermittent testing. He was absolutely, positively, unequivocally, “COVID-19 negative” when the assault team arrived on his doorstep later that day.

Earlier in the day, Ellis had punched into work as usual, but on this day things felt different. His co-worker of two years, a young woman in the neighborhood, seemed to be glaring at him with disdain. The evening before, she had checked the local sex offender registry and found his name listed. In her rage, fear and disgust, she immediately contacted the local probation office to warn them that Ellis has possession of a cellphone and is “likely misusing it while on the registry.”

The Office of Probation immediately formulated a task force to investigate. They dispatched an extraction team to Ellis’s home to intercept the phone. When Ellis arrived home from work, they were waiting in full tactical regalia. Even though Ellis immediately offered up his phone and explained that he had permission to own one, the team proceeded to escort him to the nearest federal building, subject him to a series of polygraph tests, rephrase questions five different ways, and interrogate him on whether he had utilized the phone for nefarious purposes.

Ellis’s phone was then subject to an extensive forensic evaluation which found nothing unusual. Eventually, a scroll through the contact list did produce the name and number of the best friend, who had previously been convicted of a felony. Nearing the conclusion of this comprehensive investigation, Ellis thought to himself, “Why did they not just ask me if I had a felon’s name on my phone? I would have told them.”

Ellis was certain he would not be transferred anywhere during the peak of a global pandemic. His confidence was based on a recent memo announcing that both the U.S. Marshals and the Federal Bureau of Prisons would discontinue all non-essential prisoner transfers to minimize undue exposure. Still, Ellis found himself on a transport bus within days.

At the peak of the epidemic in mid-July 2020, Ellis found himself in the company of thousands of other prisoners all in transit to and from various prisons. He began at CoreCivic-Leavenworth, waiting for his official revocation hearing. That hearing would be attended by a flurry of masked court personnel; investigative agents; physically distanced prosecutors; and gloved Marshals, each carrying files bearing number 22319-031. The defendant would be sentenced to a term of six months imprisonment at FCI Seagoville.

Ellis would begin his new prison assignment traveling from Leavenworth by van to the airport. He would then depart by airlift and cross country to and from Phoenix, Arizona, collecting hundreds of transferees along the way. Transport vans would shuttle him to various overnights supporting a network of private prisons and contract jails, and eventually arrive in Oklahoma, just a few hundred miles from where he began in Kansas. His temporary home would be the newly renovated private prison, CoreCivic-Cimarron. “Remember,” thought Ellis, “bus drivers, air marshals, county sheriffs, they all gotta’ eat.”

Ellis would remain at Cimarron inhaling the new paint smell for a month or so before he would eventually begin another series of transports. The pandemic continued to rage on. The Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons continued reporting that all prisoner transports were on hold for safety purposes. FCI Seagoville, Ellis’s ultimate destination, just happened to be identified as the single most concentrated population for COVID-positive cases of any institution, company, hospital, food processing plant or stand-alone facility in the world.

He would eventually arrive in the last seat on a 19-person transport, and he would enter the gates of FCI Seagoville’s holdover facility on November 6, 2020, nearly five months after he began his violation. He would be placed in a holding cell with three other temporary prisoners, and his cell would transition new prisoners in and out daily. Within a few weeks, there would be 19 different prisoners sharing these bunks, most, “non-contact computer clickers.” This prompted Ellis to ask a guard, “Why so many clickers?” to which the guard responded with elation, “Hell, you guys are the new marijuana!”

Ellis finally walked across the street in early December 2020, and for the very first time, stepped onto the grounds of FCI Seagoville where he began his official prison term. He was housed in a dorm-style building with 320 men and placed into the very same bunk of a prisoner who, just an hour before, was removed from that 10-man cell because he tested positive for COVID-19 after experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Ellis tested positive within 36 hours of his arrival. Two-thirds of his 10-man cell tested positive with him. He would satisfy his prison sentence over the next 19 days only to be returned home on December 30 with a debilitating virus. Unfortunately, this time, he would return, not as “Brett Ellis,” but rather, as “CONVICT-19.” He would return having no home, no job, no money, and no best friend to call. He would arrive hungry and soon realize, “not everyone’s gotta’ eat.”