Alana M. is worried sick about her husband, an inmate at United States Penitentiary Lompoc, now the site of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the federal prison system. As of Tuesday, April 21, 99 inmates have tested positive for the virus. One inmate has died. A number are hospitalized, and some are on ventilators, though officials won’t say how many, citing security concerns. Twenty-nine staff are ill.
Alana’s husband is 76 years old, she said, has a heart problem, and uses a walker to get around. He’s frightened, too. “All these guys are really desperate,” she said. “It’s a terrible situation.”
Sandra B. doesn’t know what to say to her 6-year-old son when he asks about his dad. Before the virus infected the federal prison, they talked on the phone all the time. It’s been almost two weeks now without a call. “I don’t know if he’s okay or not,” she said. “They won’t tell us anything. Someone, please help.”
June K. has an “elderly family member (with a long list of medical conditions)” inside the facility. “We have been deathly anxious for his health and frustrated by the lack of action from the [Bureau of Prisons] to protect these inmates,” she said.
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Charles D. hasn’t seen his son in 17 years, and now he’s afraid he’ll never get the chance. “His mother and I are in our late sixties, and we have health problems,” he said. “We are scared we will never see him again.” Charles suggested his son, behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense, could be put on house arrest for the remaining three years of his term, or at least until the virus is brought under control. Anything to get him out of Lompoc, he said.
Marina S. is convinced that if her 56-year-old brother who suffers from asthma and chronic pneumonia contracts COVID-19, “it will most likely result in his death.” She called the crowded quarantine conditions inside the prison “cruel and inhumane” and predicted the virus will continue to “spread like wildfire.”
These five accounts are among the two dozen provided to the Santa Barbara Independent by inmates’ families since the first case of COVID-19 was reported at United States Penitentiary Lompoc (USP Lompoc) on March 30. Most of the families, who live across the country, spoke on the condition of anonymity, though some allowed the use of their first names and the first initial of their last names for this article. Many expressed concern that talking to the media would cause prison officials to retaliate against their relatives.
Their main complaint over the last three weeks of the outbreak — the only one at a congregate living facility in Santa Barbara County — has been the acute lack of communication from both local federal prison leadership and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in Washington, D.C. Repeated calls to the Lompoc office and the BOP’s administrative headquarters, they say, go either unanswered or are met with impatient responses that prisoner information cannot be released. The families point out that is simply not true. It’s not even clear to them who’s in charge at Lompoc. Until recently, it was an acting warden named James Engleman, but an officer who declined to give his name during a brief phone conversation with the Independent said the prison was now “between wardens.”
NO COMMENT, NO COMMENT
The frustrations of Lompoc inmates’ families grew even more pronounced this week with the initiation of a 14-day facility-wide lockdown on Monday, April 20, during which inmates won’t be allowed to use phones or email to communicate with the outside world. Some likened it to a “gag order.” The announcement comes as Lompoc federal prison officials are facing increased public scrutiny over their handling of the outbreak, including their release of an inmate in the late stages of a COVID-19 infection who died four days after being sent home on a Greyhound bus.
BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson, however, said the lockdown is “not for punitive reasons.” While inmate movement is being restricted to essential activities (such as showers), Nelson explained, “mail will continue to be collected and delivered daily.” The extreme measures were decided upon out of “an abundance of caution,” he continued, “to maximize social distancing as much as possible” and to ensure that “even small group gathering is avoided.”
The prison complex, which houses more than 1,500 male inmates sentenced for crimes ranging from petty larceny to aggravated murder, comprises four distinct units: medium- and low-security areas within the large central building and two minimum-security satellite camps on the north and south ends of the property.
All four areas, with tightly packed bunk beds and only a handful of showers for every few hundred men, are ill-suited for social distancing. So to utilize as much space as possible, prison authorities have reportedly reopened rooms that had been closed off because of black-mold contamination, including a kitchen. Inmate workers at the prison’s dairy operation, which supplies milk throughout the federal penitentiary system and is deemed an essential function of the facility, are sequestered in the south camp’s dining hall.
Lompoc prison leadership has declined to publicly comment on any specific precautions the prison is taking to contain the outbreak. Officials refuse to address reports that inmates and staff haven’t been provided adequate protective equipment, or that employees still aren’t being properly screened and tested. They’ve only offered vague assurances that they are following protocol and instituting a “comprehensive management approach” to infection control.
CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
The information blackout has angered California senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris and Representative Salud Carbajal, who fired off a letter to BOP Director Michael Carvajal on Tuesday, April 21. It was their second letter to Carvajal, after one on April 15, complaining about the bureau’s handling of the crisis.
The lawmakers are especially troubled that the prison still does not have a good plan for protecting staff, some of whom are reportedly sleeping in their cars to avoid bringing the disease home. “These public servants continuously put their lives on the lines and deserve better,” they stated.
Legislators around the country have criticized the BOP for not doing enough to insulate inmates and staff at its 122 penitentiaries. So far, the virus has killed 23 inmates and sickened 323 staff and 540 inmates systemwide. A union representing BOP staff has filed a lawsuit against the agency demanding hazard pay.
Another major concern of Feinstein, Harris, and Carbajal’s is the lack of progress in setting up a 100-bed field hospital on the prison’s grounds to handle its growing number of patients. “It is our understanding the BOP is in negotiations to establish this mobile hospital,” they wrote. “We urge you to move as quickly as possible to ensure our local healthcare system is not overwhelmed by this COVID-19 outbreak.”
The legislators ended their letter with a long series of questions for Carvajal:
“What progress has the BOP made to secure the necessary staff and equipment, including ventilators, for the mobile hospital? How has the BOP worked with other stakeholders to develop a contingency plan to ensure our local resources are not overwhelmed by this crisis? When can law enforcement personnel, workers, and all other individuals at the Lompoc USP expect to receive PPE (personal protective equipment)? What types of PPE have they provided, as well as how often?”
They also wanted to know about the April 3 memo from Attorney General Barr, stating every inmate cleared for release should first be quarantined for 14 days. “Was this followed in the case of the reported inmate who died of COVID-19 four days after his release?” they wondered and asked Carvajal for his “timely response to these critical issues.”
Other contingency plans have been floated in the event of an inmate surge. The prison itself contains only a small medical bay capable of caring for only a few patients. Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo offered a backup medical facility for civilians if Lompoc prisoners flood local hospitals. Lompoc Valley Medical Center, for instance, recently reported that only two of its critical care beds were still available.
Lt. Brian Olmstead with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office also told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the BOP may convert an old factory on the prison property into a quarantine zone with 20 beds. But the details and a timeline were murky, he said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reportedly involved.
THE FEDS HAVE FAILED US
Despite these escalating complaints and criticisms of federal prison officials both locally and in Washington, Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, director of Santa Barbara’s Public Health Department, said recently that the county and the prison have an “astounding partnership.” “They have a really good staff and good leadership,” she said.
Nick Clay, an emergency medical technician with the Public Health Department, echoed Do-Reynoso at a press conference last week. “They continue to be a valuable and willing partner in managing the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
But those overtures of collaboration were cold comfort for Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne, who’s held local and federal officials to task for the outbreak and its impact on her city. “The federal officials have failed not only the inmates and staff but my community by not aggressively responding to the first reported case on March 30, when it was only 2 inmates and 1 staff member,” she said in an email on Friday.
Moreover, Osborne said, “In an attempt to keep the communications going through appropriate public health channels, I repeatedly asked [the Public Health Department] about the status of the growing infection rate and for information about addressing the prison’s situation. The answer has always been, ‘We are in contact with the prison.’ ” Yet, here we are, still waiting for the extra beds, she said.
Osborne disputed the BOP’s claim that outbreaks such as Lompoc’s couldn’t be avoided, or as BOP Director Carvajal said on Tuesday: “No amount of preparation could have left our institutions unaffected.”
“This outbreak is not a black swan event,” she said. “It is an absolute known given [the prison] meets the tier one criteria as a congregate living facility. Following appropriate pandemic protocols early and aggressively could have prevented this.”
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.