The coronavirus has crept its way back inside the federal Lompoc prison complex, with officials on Friday reporting 13 active cases among inmates and one among staff. All visitation to the facility has been suspended until further notice.
This spring, the prison was the site of one of the worst penitentiary outbreaks in the country. The virus killed four inmates, infected more than 1,000, and sickened dozens of staff. By summer the crisis had largely subsided, but as new COVID cases surge across the country and here in Santa Barbara County, congregate living facilities are again experiencing high levels of infection.
An investigation over the summer by the Inspector General found that the initial response within the complex, which is operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), failed on a number of fronts and likely contributed to the severity of the outbreak, including staffing shortages, inadequate screenings, and a scarcity of protective equipment.
A separate medical inspection ordered by a federal judge as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union uncovered other “serious deficiencies” in the prison’s response, as well as troubling behavior by staff, such as routine failures by custody deputies to wear masks and retaliation against detainees who complained. Letters written by inmates to family and shared with the media described the shockingly poor conditions of a quarantine wing and “medieval” treatment by “dysfunctional, apathetic, and irresponsible staff.”
Throughout the COVID crisis, the BOP has been criticized for its lack of transparency not only among relatives of inmates but also toward members of Congress. In June, the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed the BOP director on the agency’s lack of proactive efforts to protect inmates and staff ― including its continued defiance of an order to release low-level offenders to home confinement ― and received few satisfactory answers in return.
Representative Salud Carbajal has also been relentless in his prodding of the notoriously opaque department. On December 4 ― before this week’s outbreak ― he sent a letter to the BOP asking how it planned to cope with a potential resurgence of the virus within the walls of the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex (Lompoc FCC). He asked Deputy Director Gene Beasley five specific questions, in one referencing a field hospital the prison had erected to handle its initial surge:
- What are the current medical staffing levels within the Lompoc FCC?
- On our conference call, you mentioned the onsite hospital may stay in place. Can you provide a status update?
- In response to the Inspector General’s report, what actions has the BOP taken to ensure it closes the gaps identified in testing, providing sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and inmates, as well as maintaining proper hygiene and sanitation to prevent another outbreak?
- Has the BOP developed a plan to deal with potential surges in cases within Lompoc FCC?
- What are the current communication protocols for inmates who contract the virus to inform their families? Are there plans in place for families to have access to a notary in the event there is a need for health-care proxy?
During the springtime surge and the prison’s full lockdown to limit further spread, family members were frequently denied information on the status of sick relatives behind bars, sometimes for weeks at a time. Carbajal concluded his letter to Beasley by stating, “My office is in communication with many family members of inmates at this facility who share many of the concerns I have and continue to raise.”
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