Over the last two months, as a deadly COVID-19 outbreak first crept, then raced, through the federal prison complex in Lompoc, the Santa Barbara Independent has documented multiple instances where prison officials neglected to give medical care to critically ill inmates, which likely contributed to their hospitalizations and deaths.
The first involved a man named Efrem Stutson, who was released April 1 after serving 27 years of an overturned life sentence. During his final days at the complex ― the site of 1,107 coronavirus infections, more than any other federal prison in the nation ― Stutson grew weak and came down with a bad cough. He was barely able to talk. Prison officials, nevertheless, put him on a Greyhound bus to his hometown of San Bernardino. When his family met him at the station, they said he couldn’t hold his head up. Stutson, 60, died four days later.
The second case took place in late April, when Maria Del Carmen Torres Figueroa, who lives in Florida, received a letter from her son, 24-year-old Yonnedil Torres. He said he was extremely sick but his repeated requests for a doctor were being ignored. The next letter to Figueroa came from Torres’s cellmate, who said his condition had become so dire that the other inmates on their block all started banging on their doors until attention arrived. Staff found Torres in acute respiratory shock. He was put into a medically induced coma, and while he’s since woken up, he suffered permanent lung damage that paralyzed his left arm and injured his heart.
Now, the Independent has learned of two more incidents where it again appears the inaction of prison staff had serious consequences for inmates infected with the coronavirus.
Edgar Udarbe, 52, fell ill on May 21, according to a letter from a fellow inmate and verified by other sources. He developed vertigo and was unable to climb onto his top bunk, so inmates cleared a bottom bunk, where he lay semi-comatose for four days during which he did not eat or drink and needed help going to the bathroom. While fellow inmates summoned correctional officers to Udarbe’s bedside multiple times, the letter claims, none offered to assist other than to note his condition in their log book. It was only when Udarbe couldn’t stand for a morning count after the long holiday weekend that officers finally allowed an inmate to take him by wheelchair to the prison’s medical bay, after which he was transferred to the ICU at Lompoc Valley Medical Center.
A nurse reportedly told the inmates that Udarbe’s condition is “very critical” and that he may not survive. Prison officials are reportedly attempting to contact his wife in Hawai’i. “It’s obvious and blatant that the [prison] administration is responsible for Edgar’s serious medical condition and positive COVID-19 test,” the letter states. “In addition, they should be held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof ― trapping us in a dangerous environment with a rapidly spreading deadly virus!”
Udarbe is scheduled for release in October 2023, court records show. He was arrested in 2017 on low-level drug charges while on probation. A judge at the time noted how Udarbe’s employer described him as an excellent worker, and that others testified to him being a good father and husband. The judge said he needed to avoid people who take advantage of him.
Lompoc inmates and their families ― as well as Representative Salud Carbajal and other members of Congress ― have raised serious concerns about conditions at the prison and the steps federal authorities have or have not taken to slow the spread of the virus. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit against the complex and another federal facility in San Pedro for subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment. All groups have pressed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to carry out an April order from Attorney General William Barr to release certain inmates to home confinement so that BOP facilities with coronavirus outbreaks can better enact social distancing and quarantine measures. While some prisoners have been sent home, many more have not. The eligibility criteria is also coming under scrutiny.
A May 21 opinion piece in USA Today pointed out that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was released even though he did not appear qualified for special treatment. Meanwhile, Andrea Circle Bear, a pregnant Native American woman sentenced for a nonviolent drug crime, was left to die in a Fort Worth penitentiary shortly after she gave birth. Many Lompoc inmates subscribe to USA Today, but they conspicuously did not receive the May 21 issue, just as they hadn’t the last time the paper ran an article critical of the BOP.
The latest incident of apparent neglect by Lompoc staff came this Monday with the third death of an inmate at the complex. According to the BOP’s official statement, Mohamed Yusuf, 37, was found unresponsive at approximately 1:00 p.m. at Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc (the low-security half of the property). Staff tried to resuscitate him, but he was pronounced dead by responding paramedics.
According to Santa Barbara resident Barbara Quinn, whose son Michael is serving time on a fraud conviction, Yusuf had been intensely sick the last week and a half, “coughing and choking and not being able to breathe.” Quinn, who spoke to her son by phone on Wednesday, said other prisoners had “begged the guards for help, but no one would do anything.” Her account was corroborated by Diana Lopez, the wife of another Lompoc inmate. Her husband told her that guards accused Yusuf of “faking it.” From New York, Yusuf was serving a 132-month sentence for conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization.
Quinn claimed the much-touted hospital unit the prison complex erected earlier this month to treat COVID-19 patients has not been used because it remains unstaffed and not fully equipped. “It was completely for show,” she said, discounting the BOP’s announcement that included photos of the renovated space with fresh paint and new flooring. “It was a total publicity stunt.” Other inmates in contact with the Independent have made similar accusations about the hospital unit. Santa Barbara County officials admit they have no knowledge about its operations.
Quinn said she’s desperately worried for Michael and the other Lompoc prisoners. She said she speaks and writes in code with her son so their communications aren’t censored. Otherwise, given the BOP’s intense secrecy, the incidents of mistreatment would never be publicly known. “These are human beings,” she said. “This should not be allowed.”
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+.