The COVID-19 outbreak inside the federal penitentiary in Lompoc continues to spread, with the number of infected inmates climbing to 45 on Friday and the number of sick staff increasing to 14. Ten of the inmates are hospitalized, with two in the ICU. One staff member is also hospitalized. The figures have essentially doubled since last Friday. With Santa Barbara County reporting 260 COVID-19 cases, the prison now accounts for 23 percent of the region’s total.
Bureau of Prison (BOP) staff and inmates across the country have criticized the BOP’s response to the numerous outbreaks at their facilities, calling the containment efforts too little too late. The agency initiated its most restrictive measures on March 31, which included keeping inmates in their “assigned cells or quarters” for 14 days and stopping all transfers between facilities.
In recent days, family members of Lompoc inmates have contacted the Santa Barbara Independent with their concerns. They have also provided emails and letters sent to them from inside the prison. The messages paint the picture of an institution overwhelmed and underprepared. “The BOP is not being transparent to the public about what is happening behind these walls,” one note reads.
Social distancing orders simply aren’t possible in a prison setting, the Lompoc inmates stressed to their families. One said he bunks in a single large room with 230 other offenders who sleep within three feet of one another. Another pointed out that while outside visitations were cancelled March 8, the prison reported its first COVID-19 case three weeks later, on March 30, suggesting the virus was carried into the complex by a staff member. Both inmates and staff, in Lompoc and at other facilities, have criticized the BOP’s screening process as inadequate.
Guards, officers, nurses, and other staff rarely wear gloves or masks when working, the Lompoc inmates claim. The staff themselves are reportedly frustrated, with some complaining that basic protective equipment came to them well after the virus started spreading, and even then in inadequate quantities.
Guards have also protested being forced to work in Lompoc prison’s quarantine area, which has taken over the Segregated Housing Unit, or SHU, a grouping of high-security, single-occupancy cells normally reserved for violent inmates. According to separate sources, officers have filed a lawsuit against the BOP through their union, the American Federation of Government Employees and its Council of Prison Locals, though that information could not be independently verified by press time.
United States Penitentiary Lompoc, or USP Lompoc, possesses the second most COVID-19 cases among the 22 correctional institutions operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Only a medium-security facility in North Carolina has reported slightly more. Six federal inmates in Louisiana and three in Ohio have died.
Santa Barbara County health officials say they are coordinating with BOP authorities to address the outbreak. “Our team has been in very close communication with the Lompoc prison,” said Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, director of the county’s Public Health Department, at a media briefing on Thursday. She said the county has made its Care Center in Lompoc available to prison staff for testing, and her team is providing guidance on “how to stand up a medical center on their grounds.” Do-Reynoso also said that if the prison needed additional resources, “we will be the ones to facilitate those material requests.”
Additional questions to the county about the outbreak were deferred to the BOP. The bureau’s spokesperson, Scott Taylor, said the agency “has instituted a comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures that apply to all BOP institutions, including USP Lompoc.”
In an internal memo to BOP staff leaked over the weekend, director Michael Carvajal asked employees to “have faith” and to not let fear of the virus “distract us from our daily tasks.”
This article was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud, innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund.