Dr. Homer Venters, a New York-based epidemiologist, was recently appointed by President Biden to his COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force | Credit: Courtesy

A second court-ordered medical inspection of the Lompoc prison complex ― where a major COVID-19 outbreak last spring killed at least four inmates and sickened more than 1,000 ― has revealed an alarmingly low vaccination acceptance rate among the population. 

Dr. Homer Venters, the epidemiologist who performed the inspection as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), said he was “extremely concerned” about the roughly 50 percent rate, which he attributed to prison staff neglecting to address inmates’ “very valid and predictable concerns” about the effects the vaccine might have on their underlying health conditions.

Venters interviewed 67 prisoners on April 20 and 21, 33 of whom had refused the COVID-19 vaccine, citing worries about how it might impact their heart disease, autoimmune disorder, diabetes, cancer, asthma, and other diagnoses. The majority of the all-male Lompoc complex is low-security and houses elderly individuals.

Rather than address these fears, Venters said, prison staff dismissively told the inmates to either “take the vaccine or sign a refusal form.”

“Many of the people who reported refusing the vaccine told me they were willing to take it but simply had questions about their own health status,” Venters said. 

The Lompoc detention complex was the site of one of the worst COVID-19 prison outbreaks in the country. | Credit: Courtesy

“The approach of BOP Lompoc not only fails to engage with patients; it has a paradoxical effect of creating a pool of extremely high-risk unvaccinated patients,” he continued. “In other detention settings I have worked in, a COVID-19 refusal by a high-risk patient would result in a prompt session with a physician or mid-level provider because the consequences of infection are so grave.”

Prison guards, Venters discovered, had a similarly low vaccination acceptance rate ― approximately 50 percent. He was told by BOP leadership that they were “limited by what they could force their staff to do.” He suggested outreach and education, neither of which had been attempted.

Venters, who was recently appointed by President Biden to his COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and had previously visited the Lompoc facility in September 2020, also uncovered serious ongoing problems with the medical care provided to prisoners, including critical delays and deficiencies in treatment. 

In one particular instance, Venters noted, a 62-year-old man who contracted and ultimately died from COVID-19 “had lost the use of his lower extremities, sustained multiple falls, and was often incontinent of bowel and bladder” before he was finally transferred to an outside hospital. The man, Fidel Torres, was serving time on marijuana charges.

In four other cases, Venters said, inmates reported “ongoing respiratory and neurological symptoms from their COVID-19 infection many months prior, and that they were not receiving care.”

Venters was particularly frustrated that, despite assurances from prison leadership, none of the 49 inmates he spoke with who held work assignments ― including in food service, the chapel, the medical bay, and in administration ― reported ever being screened by staff for symptoms. 

“It is apparent that BOP Lompoc has failed to implement screening of inmate workers since this issue was raised in my prior inspection report, leading me to conclude that they and the BOP view the screening of workers as unimportant or trivial to their COVID-19 response,” Venters said.

“I am dismayed that despite multiple assurances on my first inspection that this process was in place, and clear evidence that it was not, I returned six months later to be told once again that this process was occurring and find the same complete lack of screening of workers,” he went on. “This failure might be of lesser consequence if no new cases of COVID-19 had occurred, but there have been 95 cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people since this issue was raised.”

Venters was perhaps most exasperated by the slapshod way Lompoc officials investigated the four COVID-19 deaths at their facility. The investigative records he was provided appeared incomplete and at times outright misleading. 

“I cannot explain why the BOP stated that there had been no COVID-19 related hospitalizations since my initial inspection when one of these deaths was clearly COVID-19 related and involved hospitalization,” Venters wrote. “I am also concerned that in one of these deaths, despite the patient’s report of not receiving his medications for a disease that was central to his death, there was no structured review of medication access before the BOP judged his care to be adequate and appropriate.”

Venters said he’d personally conducted or participated in well over 100 mortality reviews, and it was uncommon for a report to conclude not a single aspect of a patient’s care could have been improved in some way. It was even more rare, he said, for four sequential reports to make the same findings. In fact, he said, it was unheard of. 

“The records of people who died in BOP custody at Lompoc have clear deficiencies and/or areas of improvement,” Venters concluded, “and the fact that no recommendations are made in the multi-level mortality reviews clearly establish that these are systemic failings that transcend BOP Lompoc.” He noted a “clear need for independent review of deaths from COVID-19 at Lompoc and elsewhere within the BOP.”

Less consequential, but nonetheless noteworthy, were discoveries by Venters that prison guards coached inmates how to respond to his questions, and hastily distributed hygiene supplies shortly before his arrival.

“In the days before my inspection, inmates were directed by security staff on how to answer my questions,” Venters said. “Several people specifically reported that security staff told them to report that they always wipe down common surfaces and electrical sockets every 15 minutes. Each of the people who told me of being directed about this point also stated that they had never once done this.”

Moreover, Venters said, “Several people reported that minutes before the inspection, the lack of any soap in the bathroom had been noticed by security staff who went to the kitchen and took bags of soap from there and simply dropped the unopened bags into the sinks of the housing area.”

The performative nature of these actions by guards, Venters concluded, “forces a pessimistic assessment about how seriously the facility and the BOP take their own policies, the guidelines of the CDC, and basic infection control.”

Venters, however, saved some of his harshest criticism for the prison’s “punitive approach to quarantine.” Inmates under regular intake quarantine are confined to their cells 22-24 hours in a six-tiered wing known as the Secure Housing Unit (SHU), which is normally used to confine the prison’s most violent and erratic offenders. They are denied basic privileges like phone access, yard time, or regular showers, and many men told Venters their quarantine experience “was more psychologically stressful than disciplinary segregation in other prisons.”

“One year into the pandemic,” Venters said, “there is no excuse for denial of basic services and rights to people under the guise of infection control.”

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