The COVID-19 time bomb ticking inside the Lompoc prison complex since late March detonated in dramatic fashion this week as the federal facility confirmed 912 open cases among inmates and 25 cases among staff. The outbreak remains the largest in any federal prison in the United States. The rest of Santa Barbara County has reported 475 total positive cases.
The sharp increase in numbers — the complex announced only 172 active infections on May 6 — is attributable to the mass testing now taking place at one-half of the property, Federal Correctional Institute Lompoc (FCI Lompoc). Mass testing has not yet been organized for the other half, United States Penitentiary Lompoc (USP Lompoc). If and when USP Lompoc is fully tested, the figure will likely spike again. The only two inmates at the complex to have died from the virus — 66-year-old Oliver M. Boling and 75-year-old Jimmie Lee Houston — resided at USP Lompoc.
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The stakes remain remarkably high not only for the health and safety of the 2,704 male offenders, but also for Santa Barbara County as a whole. The region’s ability to meet new criteria outlined by Governor Newsom to ease lockdown restrictions — going 14 days without a single COVID-related death and reporting no more than four new active cases a day — has been stymied by the ongoing prison outbreak.
Representative Salud Carbajal said during an interview Monday that he’s supporting hard-charging efforts by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblymember Monique Limón to uncouple community statistics from those at the Lompoc complex. Santa Barbara County, Carbajal noted, actually announced a decline of 61 active cases in recent days. “I believe the governor should articulate what measures the prison can take to satisfy his team so they’ll consider modifying the metrics,” he said. “Whatever those measures are, I will be glad to follow up with the Bureau of Prisons to get them done. But he needs to articulate the pathway to make that happen.”
In the meantime, Carbajal suggested, comprehensive testing ought to begin at USP Lompoc so Bureau of Prisons (BOP) authorities and state health officials can understand the true scope of the outbreak. The unrestricted movement of prison staff between the complex and their homes also remains a major concern, Carbajal said. Most of the correctional officers live in the cities of Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Vandenberg Village, where a disproportionate number of cases in the county are concentrated. Carbajal suggested some kind of temporary housing for staff, like a hotel, could be organized to limit community spread.
Carbajal expressed disappointment that the 20-bed Hospital Care Unit (HCU) recently constructed on prison grounds, which BOP officials promised would take pressure off regional medical centers, is in fact not properly equipped to handle serious COVID-19 cases. “They didn’t add any ventilators, and acute cases are still going to community hospitals,” Carbajal said. “This will continue to strain the health delivery system for the general public.”
Carbajal also noted that the bureau never finalized its contract with a private health-care provider to staff the HCU with doctors and nurses. In fact, officials outside the BOP, which severely limits the flow of information in and out of the complex, can’t even say if the HCU is up and running yet. “As of today, May 8, it is unclear whether the Hospital Care Unit is in fact operational,” said Steve Popkin, CEO of the Lompoc Valley Medical Center.
There are currently 14 inmates and one staff member being treated at area hospitals. One inmate is in an ICU. Every inmate is guarded 24 hours a day by two correctional officers on eight-hour shifts, meaning over the course of recent days, dozens of officers experienced direct, long-term exposure to the coronavirus in addition to those stationed within the close confines of the prison. (While the county’s Public Health Department has made free testing available to all 450 Lompoc staff, only 42 have used the service.)
Members of the officers’ union have complained since the beginning of the outbreak that the BOP has not provided them sufficient personal protective equipment. They were forced to repeatedly reuse N95 masks, the union said, and some staff started sleeping in their cars to avoid bringing the virus home with them. The prison is also plagued by staffing shortages, which existed even before the pandemic. Recently, a female psychiatric technician was pulled from her regular duties and ordered to work as a correctional officer.
With palpable frustration, Supervisor Gregg Hart said during Friday’s press conference that the prison was not communicating with regional leaders or inmates’ families and had “rebuffed” the county’s numerous offers to help. “Every single man who’s in that prison is a father, a son, a brother, or a grandfather,” Hart said. “They have loving families at home who are very concerned about them. We want to know what’s going on in the prison, and we have not been able to get adequate answers.”
Carbajal vs. Carvajal
In a letter dated May 7, BOP Director Michael Carvajal tried but failed to assuage Carbajal’s concerns, which the congressmember, along with California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, had articulated in two sharply worded letters sent to the federal agency on April 15 and 21. They wanted to know what Carvajal was doing to get the Lompoc crisis under control — screening, testing, treatment, prevention, etc. His letter in return was “very unsatisfactory,” Carbajal said. “Since the response came so late, I thought it would be a lot more thorough.”
While Carvajal touted the new hospital unit and better distribution of protective equipment, he did not address a commitment the BOP made last month to erect a 50-bed field hospital at the complex as an additional means of lightening the load on Santa Barbara’s medical system. “He completely glossed over the status of that proposal,” Carbajal complained. And while the BOP director stated the agency had moved more than 5,100 vulnerable inmates into home confinement, he did not say if any of those came from Lompoc. “These individuals are doing their time,” Carbajal said, “but they certainly were not sentenced to death.”
Other members of Congress — on both sides of the aisle — are similarly dissatisfied with Carvajal’s leadership of the bureau and its 122 facilities, where 49 inmates have now died from COVID-19. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-44th) represents an area of San Pedro that includes the FCI Terminal Island complex, the site of the second worst prison outbreak in the country. “This is not acceptable,” she recently tweeted. “The government has a responsibility to protect people in its care, including inmates. We need answers.”
Rep. Frederick B. Keller (R-12th) of Pennsylvania introduced a piece of legislation May 1 called the Federal Prisons Accountability Act that would, among other things, require the BOP director to be confirmed by the Senate, instead of being appointed by the U.S. attorney general. It was co-sponsored by six other Republicans. “The federal Bureau of Prisons plays a critical public safety role,” Keller said, “but their utter lack of transparency and responsiveness to members of Congress and the public at large is appalling.”
Carvajal was appointed by Attorney General William Barr on February 25. A U.S. Army veteran, he started with the bureau in 1992 as a correctional officer. He worked as an employee development specialist and lieutenant, then served as warden at penitentiaries in Texas and Louisiana before being promoted to a regional director in July 2016.
The cone of silence surrounding the Lompoc complex is nothing new. Long before COVID-19 existed, Santa Barbara County’s top leadership tried for the better part of a year to start a conversation with prison officials over the use of a road on their property. “I had been trying to get a meeting with the warden to discuss acquiring access to a road that Mission Hills residents could use in the event of a wildfire evacuation,” said Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents the area. Despite her persistent outreach, and countless overtures by her staff, the prison never responded and the meeting never took place.
Lompoc is now on its third warden since the start of the outbreak. James Engleman was acting warden when the first positive cases were reported in late March and inmates and their families started to panic but couldn’t get any information from staff, including individual case workers. Little is known about Engleman, other than mentions of his name in news articles from 2014, when he served as a spokesperson for the BOP’s Victorville prison after two inmates were killed in an alleged Aryan Brotherhood attack.
At some point in early April, a BOP administrator named B. von Blanckensee took over as acting warden. Before arriving in Lompoc, Blanckensee had held high-ranking positions at Texas, West Virginia, and New York facilities. In an April 10 phone call with lawmakers, before the percolating outbreak was exposed by communications from inmates to their families and the news media, she gave Rep. Carbajal a positive report. “She made it all sound very rosy,” said Carbajal.
Now, senior bureau executive Louis Milusnic oversees the Lompoc complex. Milusnic, according to his profile on the BOP’s website, is the assistant director of the agency’s Program Review Division, “a self-monitoring system that provides oversight of BOP program performance and compliance.”
With a $7 billion budget, the bureau manages 36,000 employees and incarcerates 172,000 people.
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.