The evening before Tuesday’s Senate hearing on deadly COVID-19 outbreaks in federal detention facilities, the Bureau of Prisons announced the fourth virus-related death at its complex in Lompoc. Daniel Vadnais, a 56-year-old inmate at Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc (FCI Lompoc), the low-security half of the property, tested positive for COVID-19 on May 2. On May 6, he was transported to an undisclosed Santa Barbara County hospital with a rapid pulse and breathing problems. Two days later, he was placed on a ventilator, and on June 1, he died.
At least 71 inmates in Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody have died since late March, when outbreaks started taking hold in penitentiaries across the country. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have criticized the bureau for not doing enough to protect inmates and staff, and on Tuesday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee peppered BOP Director Michael Carvajal with questions about his department’s response.
The hearing took place against the backdrop of nationwide protests over the fatal asphyxiation of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a white police officer. Many of the committee members drew parallels between what they described as persistent structural racism among U.S. police on the street to the mass incarceration and unequal treatment of black and brown Americans behind bars. “This nation’s history of inequity is continuing to be exposed in dramatic fashion and is being exacerbated by this pandemic,” said Senator Cory Booker. “That is especially true for our prisons.”
Booker and others asked Carvajal why, for instance, the criteria that the BOP uses to determine which inmates are eligible for home transfer during the COVID-19 crisis determined that only 7 percent of black inmates were considered “minimum risk,” while 30 percent of white inmates received that distinction. Carvajal said the criteria is based on a complicated scientific formula of criminal history and future risk that does not factor in race, and he defended the home confinement process as fair and objective.
The issue received national attention after it was revealed the BOP approved home transfers for former Donald Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen even though they did not appear eligible, while a pregnant woman in Texas arrested for a drug offense and sick with COVID-19 died shortly after receiving an emergency cesarean section.
When Booker pressed Carvajal on the demographic data related to home confinement, however, the director said he was unable to provide it. This frustrated Booker, who said he’d been asking the bureau for the information for nearly three months. “This is not what your convictions are,” he said to Carvajal. “It’s about having that data to give an objective review. So will you commit to getting us that data?” Carvajal said he was not familiar with how that information was collected but would take the request back to his administrative team. Booker also asked Carvajal to commit to providing the committee with a full disclosure of its transfer criteria, something the BOP has closely guarded. Carvajal stopped short of making the promise, saying again he would talk to his team.
“We have been demanding answers since March 5,” said an exasperated Senator Kamala Harris. “I have sent letters, I have made phone calls. … We have still not received a response. When are we going to get that?” Harris highlighted how the same day Cohen was released, a 62-year-old inmate named Fidel Torres, who had less than two years left on his 18-year sentence for a marijuana conviction, died of COVID in custody. “These cases highlight yet again that we have two systems of justice in America,” she said. And this is part of why people are marching in the streets.”
Many of the senators expressed concern that the BOP has released just over 3,000 inmates, less than 2 percent of all prisoners in the bureau’s custody, into alternative housing, despite an explicit order from Attorney General William Barr to to release minimum risk inmates, who make up 20 percent of the BOP population, according to ProPublica. Carvajal said the approval process was lengthy and the department was doing the best it could with limited resources made even tighter by the pandemic. He also touted the bureau’s “robust” efforts to minimize further spread of the virus, which included widespread testing, the distribution of protective equipment, and physical distancing of inmates to the degree it is possible in a prison setting.
Senator Dianne Feinstein wasn’t reassured. She noted the more than 1,700 COVID-19 cases spread between Lompoc and another BOP facility in San Pedro. “Doesn’t this show the current infection control measures aren’t working?” she asked.
Senator Richard Blumenthal was the most pointed with his comments. He cited a federal court order, now two weeks old, that admonished a BOP facility in his home state of Connecticut, the site of a particularly aggressive outbreak, for jeopardizing the health and safety of inmates. The court directed the facility, FCI Danbury, to immediately begin transferring inmates to home confinement. Blumenthal wanted to know if the BOP was complying with the order. Carvajal said he didn’t know. Blumenthal was not pleased.
“The court found that your practices at Danbury, which reflect practices around the country, ‘amount to deliberate indifference to a substantial risk to serious harm to inmates in violation of the eighth amendment,’” Blumenthal said. “And you’re coming here and saying you don’t know whether you’re complying with the court order? I think that’s unacceptable.”
Following the hearing, Rep. Salud Carbajal called Carvajal’s responses insufficient. “It was the same evasiveness, defensiveness, and the same lack of transparency,” he said, explaining he would be advocating for the House Judiciary Committee to conduct its own oversight hearing. Even when the BOP did take action over the last two months, he went on, “it was slow and still inadequate” and communication remained poor.
He said he’d like to visit inside the Lompoc complex and see for himself the containment efforts Carvajal described. He extended the invitation and is waiting to hear back. “I’ve offered and I’m willing to go,” he said.
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.