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Federal officials announced this week that construction is now complete on a new 20-bed hospital space inside the Lompoc prison complex, where an outbreak of coronavirus has infected scores of inmates and staff. Scheduled to open May 6, the Hospital Care Unit (HCU) is located on the first floor of a decommissioned military uniform factory in a medium-security area of the complex.
The HCU, the Bureau of Prisons said in a prepared statement, comprises 10 double-occupancy treatment rooms, a patient intake area, nurses’ station, pharmacy, and biohazard room, as well as a guard post and staff lounge. “The concept to build the hospital began on April 9, after the institution’s first positive COVID-19 inmate case was identified on March 31,” the statement reads. “Based on the size of the inmate population, the epidemic curve projected a high volume of cases, which would require a level of hospitalization the local community would be unable to meet.”
The exact number of inmates and staff sickened by coronavirus remains an elusive figure, as the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Santa Barbara County health officials have offered conflicting data since the start of the outbreak. Citing security considerations, the BOP has also prohibited regional hospitals from disclosing how many inmates and staff have been, or are currently, in their care.
As of Tuesday, May 5, the BOP was reporting 111 open cases in the complex, which consists of United States Penitentiary Lompoc (USP Lompoc), a medium-security facility with an adjacent minimum-security satellite camp, and Federal Correctional Institute Lompoc (FCI Lompoc), a low-security facility. Just over 2,700 male offenders are incarcerated between the two lockups. The 111 figure is a reduction from the 136 active cases the prison described last week.
County health officials, on the other hand, are reporting only 107 total cases, both active and inactive. The BOP and the county, however, agree that 66-year-old inmate Oliver M. Boling died April 17 from the virus. Other sources familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly have suggested the prison may contain as many as 300 to 400 open cases among inmates cases and another 50 to 70 among staff.
In a letter sent to the Santa Barbara Independent, inmate Steven Fishman accused Lompoc prison administrators of intentionally manipulating and downplaying the data. “They are taking off those COVID-19 positive inmates who have ‘apparently recovered’ from the list of reported cases, when in fact none of them were ever re-tested,” he said. “This falsification of records is being done to make Lompoc Correctional Complex look good, but the reporting is not being done ethically or honestly.”
Fishman provided a copy of a formal complaint filed by fellow inmate Michael Ellis, who said he tested positive for COVID-19 on April 9 and was briefly placed in quarantine, but then reintroduced to the general population without being re-tested. “I have been placed back in my bunk in D Unit at North Camp, where there are approximately 125 other inmates living who might be susceptible to contagion of the virus because I have not been re-tested!” he wrote.
Ellis also described his time in quarantine in the prison’s Secure Housing Unit, or SHU, which is normally reserved for violent or misbehaving inmates. “I felt hopeless,” he said. “I was listening to men throw up and cough all night.”
Inmate Scott Byars echoed Fishman and Ellis’s concerns in his own letter to the Independent. For speaking out, he predicted the BOP would subject him to “diesel therapy,” an unsanctioned form of punishment whereby shackled prisoners are aimlessly transported between institutions for days and weeks on end. “However,” Byars said, “this message is more important than how I do the rest of my time.”
Families Still Concerned
News of the Hospital Care Unit’s completion may offer some solace to the families of offenders. Many remain desperately worried about the health of their relatives and have been clamoring for information after the complex went on a complete lockdown on April 17 in an attempt to contain the outbreak. Phones and email were shut off, and though prison officials said mail service would continue, families have complained that most of their letters are being returned to them without explanation.
The order was meant to last 14 days but has been extended as new cases are identified. Inmates are confined to their bunks except to use the shower and toilet, and they play cards and chess to pass the time. As boredom and frustration grow, however, more fights are breaking out. The older prisoners do their best to keep the younger ones calm.
“By initiating a two-week communications blackout that has been indefinitely extended, families are frustrated and concerned,” said Beth Lawrence, the mother of an inmate serving an eight-year sentence on drug charges. “We want to know what’s happening with our loved ones.” Lawrence said her son suffers from severe mental illness and was expressing troublesome thoughts right before she stopped hearing from him. “I don’t know if he has the virus,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s suicidal. I don’t know anything.” Other families have been able to communicate with their relatives by contraband cell phones.
On April 24, Maria Del Carmen Torres Figueroa, who lives in Florida, received a letter from her son in Lompoc. He said his asthma was acting up and he was feeling very sick but his repeated requests for medical care were going unanswered. The next letter to Figueroa came on April 30 from her son’s cellmate. “I only write to you with bad news since your son has asked me to only tell you the truth of the state of his well-being and health,” the cellmate wrote in Spanish.
He went on to explain to Figueroa that her son had developed a bad fever and was experiencing extreme bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. Though he could barely get out of bed, the guards continued ignoring his cries for help. After five days of this, the cellmate said, he and the other inmates in their unit decided to start banging on their cell doors until medical attention came. It worked, and Figueroa’s son was taken to the hospital, he said. But when Figueroa contacted the prison on May 1, an officer said her son was still at the prison but refused to provide her any more information.
The cellmate concluded his letter by stating, “I am sending physical copies of all documents as evidence of everything that is happening here.” But Figueroa said the envelope arrived empty except for his handwritten note. “Where’s the rest?” asked Figueroa’s daughter, Kiara Carror. “There’s clearly something going on that they don’t want outsiders to know.” She called conditions at the prison “cruel.”
BOP Director Michael Carvajal directly addressed the Lompoc outbreak in an April 29 video statement. He touted the new Hospital Care Unit, which will be staffed by personnel from Aspen Medical, a private health-care contractor that assisted with quarantines during the coronavirus outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Carvajal, whose agency has been widely criticized for its slow and disorganized response to multiple outbreaks at its 122 facilities, where 41 inmates have died, struck a defensive and defiant tone in the video. He said he was proud of the way Lompoc prison officials are performing “despite the constant criticism and distraction.”
In a media statement released Tuesday afternoon, the BOP said it has started the process of testing 100 percent of the FCI Lompoc population for COVID-19 so the facility can better separate the infected from the healthy and reduce transmission rates. The agency also said the prison has an ample supply of personal protective equipment for both inmates and staff.
A letter from Beth Lawrence’s son, however, said some still aren’t taking the necessary precautions. “The guards walk around with no masks making jokes about the virus, saying it’s a hoax and it’s being blown out of proportion,” he wrote. “Because of their incompetence, we are paying the price.”
At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor. Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.