As of May 12, 2020, the number of COVID-19 infections had exploded at a trio of federal prisons in southern California, placing one at the top of all 142 facilities operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Lompoc, located in Santa Barbara County, holds 1,162 low-security prisoners, of whom 911 had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. That was the highest number of cases in any BOP prison. Another 16 positive cases have also been reported among prison staff. So far just 25 prisoners and 3 staff members had developed symptoms and recovered. None had died.
But at the adjacent U.S. Penitentiary (USP) Lompoc, there had been two prisoner deaths. The medium-security facility holds 1,044 prisoners, of which 114 had tested positive for coronavirus, along with 22 staff members.
The virus had also hit FCI Terminal Island in San Pedro in Los Angeles County. Of the 1,042 low-security prisoners there, 702 had tested positive for the virus, along with 15 staff members. There have been seven deaths, all among prisoners.
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, whose staff began testing for the virus at FCI Terminal Island on April 23, said that many of those infected were not showing any symptoms of illness. An infected prisoner who remains asymptomatic cannot immediately be classified as recovered.
There have also been outbreaks of the coronavirus at other BOP facilities, including FCI Elkton in Ohio, where the state’s members of the National Guard were forced to provide testing and medical services when the prison medical staff failed to contain the outbreak, which had so far infected 52 staff members and 148 prisoners, nine of whom have lost their lives
Another seven prisoners had died of the disease at FCI Oakdale in Louisiana, where 58 of 107 infected prisoners have recovered, along with one of 17 infected staff members. The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has responded to the crisis at the prison, as well as at FCI Forrest City in Arkansas, where a temporary tent hospital had gone up to quarantine and treat 294 prisoners and three staff members. Only 50 prisoners had recovered at FCI Forrest City, along with two members of the staff.
BOP stresses that the high rate of infection in the three southern California prisons – which average 53% — “does not reflect the positive rate” in the entire federal prison system. Among all 139,584 prisoners in facilities it runs, BOP says that 4,106 — just 3% — had tested positive for coronavirus, and all but 2,818 had recovered. Among 36,000 staff members, 262 remain unrecovered out of 541 who tested positive so far.
But advocates are not convinced. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called BOP’s statistics into question, accusing the agency’s central office of an apparent undercount of infections. BOP also has not provided sufficient testing supplies to confirm how many prisoners have the disease, the ACLU added.
Since mid-March, in-person visitation has been canceled at all BOP facilities. But at FCI Lompoc, USP Lompoc and FCI Terminal Island prisoners have also been cut off from using phones or email since April 17. Prison officials said that “during this unprecedented response to a pandemic” additional steps were taken “solely to mitigate the spread of the virus from multiple people touching keyboards and handsets.”
“You are strongly encouraged to continue corresponding by mailing letters through the U.S. Postal Service,” the websites for the three prisons advises.
The restrictions have effectively cut off all other means of communication for nearly 3,300 prisoners. Those resorting to letter-writing complain that virus-limited hours in the commissary make it hard to buy postage, too.
Family members and prisoner advocates, already anxious because of the spread of the pandemic in crowded prisons, were critical of the inability to use phones or email, with the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, David Fathi, calling it “almost a complete blackout of communication.”
California’s junior U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris, released a statement saying that BOP and the Justice Department “must act immediately to reduce the incarcerated population and to protect those in BOP custody — as well as correctional officers and staff — from this deadly virus.”
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