The confused and chaotic response of the U.S. government to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague Santa Barbara County, with the locus of the regional outbreak ― the federal prison complex in Lompoc ― showing few signs of containment.
As of Monday, April 27, less than a month since the first case was reported at the prison, 104 inmates and 32 employees have been infected. The figures are essentially doubling every week. One inmate has died. The number of prison cases combined with the number of sick residents in surrounding North County communities, where the majority of guards and other staff live, account for 79 percent of Santa Barbara County’s confirmed COVID-19 infections.
For reasons unclear, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which operates 122 correctional institutions across the country, is no longer updating its online “COVID-19 Resource Page” with data on the Lompoc outbreak, though it is for its other facilities. Information on new infections is instead being provided by Santa Barbara County health officials during their daily press briefings.
These same officials, however, have also been admonished by BOP administrators to no longer disclose how many Lompoc penitentiary inmates and staff are being treated at area hospitals. “For safety, security, and privacy reasons, we do not discuss the conditions of confinement for any individual or group of inmates, including any assignments to local hospitals,” explained the national BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson.
Regional leaders ― from the County Board of Supervisors to Congressional Representative Salud Carbajal and California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris ― have repeatedly expressed concern that COVID-19 patients from the prison complex could overwhelm Santa Barbara’s hospitals. (The complex consists of the medium- and minimum-security United States Penitentiary Lompoc with 1,520 inmates and the low-security Federal Correctional Institute Lompoc with 1,224 offenders.)
In two sharply-worded letters to BOP Director Michael Carvajal, the congressmembers urged the federal agency to get the situation under control, including taking better care of staff, some of whom are reportedly sleeping in their cars between shifts to avoid bringing the virus home. They also asked about an elderly inmate who was released while in the late stages of an infection and died days later at home. They have not received a response. Carbajal warned journalist Jerry Roberts in an interview last week that the prison needs additional respirators and other resources to avert a potential “disaster that’s unfathomable.”
Supervisor Joan Hartmann told the Independent her office is frequently hearing from the community on the issue. “County residents are making many sacrifices in slowing the spread,” she said, “and I have heard from several residents who would like to know more about what BOP has been doing to slow the spread of the virus, protect its workforce, and isolate those that have been exposed.”
Three weeks ago, as the numbers in the penitentiary started to climb, Santa Barbara officials ― who struggled mightily in recent years to establish communications with prison administrators on other matters ― were surprised to learn how limited the complex is in its ability to provide even basic health care. Its only means of treating inmate patients is through a small, rudimentary medical bay with few supplies and even fewer beds. (Vandenberg Air Force Base also lacks health-care resources.)
Various ideas to increase the prison’s medical bed capacity were discussed, with a plan eventually settled upon to renovate a decommissioned military uniform factory on the property. Phase 1 involves converting 11 office spaces into isolation cubicles that will house 22 patients. Phase 2 will convert a portion of the factory’s open floor plan into a congregate area with 60 to 80 beds. These efforts, however, have been hampered by delays, and it remains unknown how much construction has actually taken place, or if the BOP has secured the necessary equipment and staff to operate the facility once it’s completed.
“With regard to the medical provider or the medical resources, I’d have to refer you to the Bureau of Prisons for direct responses,” said Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, director of the county Public Health Department, at a press conference last week. The BOP did not respond to requests for information on the status of the factory project.
Meanwhile the friends and relatives of inmates, many of whom live out of state, continue to clamor for information about their loved ones. The Lompoc prison has initiated what amounts to a complete communication blackout during a two-week lockdown it said is meant to limit further spread of the virus. Inmates are currently confined to their dorms and cells and not allowed to leave their bunks except to use the shower or restroom.
“Unfortunately, our guidance for better sanitation, to practice social distancing, and encouraging inmates to wear masks has not proven effective,” wrote Acting Complex Warden B. von Blanckensee in an April 17 memorandum announcing the new restrictions. Blanckensee said BOP-issued masks were mandatory for all prisoners at all times, and commissary purchases were suspended.
Blanckensee assured inmates that they would still be allowed to send and receive mail during the lockdown. Family members say otherwise. “I recently received a large manila envelope with several letters addressed to my brother (approximately 10) inside,” said Marina Santana in an email to the Independent. “They were stamped with ‘Return to Sender’ and ‘Wrong Address.’ I called the facility, and they confirmed that I had the correct address. I was not given an explanation as to why the letters were sent back.” Deb Hoover had a similar experience. “Mail posted to my husband has been “returned to sender,” she said. “This has put a stop to all of our communication.”
Sunny Sisneros cried with concern for her 75-year-old father, who is due for release in August. Shortly before the lockdown began, he called to tell her he was sick — with the virus or not, he didn’t know — but was not receiving medical attention. She hasn’t heard from him since. When Sisneros calls the prison, an officer says he is not allowed to give out private information on inmates and directs her to the BOP website.
Sisneros, who lives in Wyoming, said she doesn’t care about the bureaucratic or political mechanisms that drove the federal government’s response to the virus. She just wants to know if her dad is okay. “I don’t care how we got here,” she said. “It is what it is. I just want my dad to come home.” Sisneros offered to make or buy masks after her father reported a shortage of them among the inmates. Without yard time or access to the “weight pile” to let off steam, growing tensions are exploding into fistfights, other sources say.
Lompoc inmates and their families are also distressed the prison isn’t doing more to comply with U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s April 3 order to release medically fragile and low-risk offenders to home confinement. It appears, however, that the Lompoc facility isn’t alone in its inaction. An article published April 25 by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism project that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, revealed that the BOP has so far transferred only 1,027 inmates to home confinement ― about 0.5 percent of the more than 174,000 people in the bureau’s custody.
Lawsuits are now being filed on behalf of prisoners at other BOP penitentiaries throughout the country. In one case in Ohio, a judge said the BOP had treated the health and welfare of its inmates with “deliberate indifference.” In a separate case, a judge called the federal agency’s process for approving transfers “Kafkaesque” and said it prevented many appropriate releases.
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.