COVID-19 & Justice

OIG Report Reveals How Administrative Failures Allowed Coronavirus to Explode Inside a Federal Prison Complex in Lompoc

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

A new report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Inspector General has identified a series of breakdowns at a federal prison in Lompoc, California — including a failure to send enough people onto home confinement — that left the complex’s 2,700 incarcerated residents in danger as the virus spread, essentially unchecked, through the prison. Since then, four people locked inside the prison have died of the virus.

More than 1,000 people inside the Lompoc complex tested positive before prison leaders discontinued mass-testing because it appeared likely that herd immunity was already occurring at Lompoc. (The facility’s main mass-test of 963 prisoners returned 882 positive test results — an infection rate of 91.5 percent.)

Back in mid-May, when those 1,000 people had first tested positive, they comprised more than 65 percent of all of Santa Barbara County’s positive tests.

(This alarming statistic prompted Santa Barbara leaders to ask state officials if prisoners could be excluded from the county’s coronavirus counts, so that local businesses and beaches could reopen sooner. Justice advocates and experts have called this logic dehumanizing and flawed, noting that staff can easily spread the virus from the prison to their families and communities.)

In response to the flood of coronavirus cases inside Lompoc, and prison officials’ inaction to stop the spread, the ACLU filed a lawsuitone of several challenging the conditions inside federal facilities.

In the class action suit, filed on May 16, attorneys argued that there was “no clearer indication of how ineffective BOP’s COVID-19 prevention policies have been than their own statistics” regarding infection rates.

The prison warden and other BOP officials, the complaint said, “have demonstrated that they will not take the measures necessary to prevent the coronavirus from converting more prison sentences into death sentences without court intervention.”

One of the suit’s main petitioners impacted by prison officials’ failure to act was Yonnedil Carror Torres, an asthmatic man whose COVID symptoms were allegedly ignored by staff and who was denied medical treatment for five days before he went into “acute respiratory shock and collapsed in his cell. Torres had to be put into a medically induced coma and onto a ventilator. He now has severe lung damage, according to the complaint.

Last week, a U.S. District Court Judge granted the ACLU a preliminary injunction ordering BOP to identify and make a list of anyone over the age of 50 with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to coronavirus complications. The feds have until July 29 to return to the judge with a list of people eligible for release.

The Office of Inspector General’s 36-page report, released this Thursday, acknowledged that the Lompoc facility’s administrators may not have been able to avoid the terrible outcome entirely, they certainly could have done more to mitigate the virus’s spread — in part by sending a portion of the population home.

The report was the result of one of a series of “remote inspections” at a number of federal prisons. These inspections, according to Inspector General Michael Horowitz, consisted of “phone interviews, review of BOP documents and complaints we have received, our analysis of data from the respective institutions, and the results of our survey of employees at the BOP, contract prisons, and halfway houses.”

In addition to choosing to keep people in federal prisons rather than send them back home to isolate with their loved ones, FCC Lompoc officials did not conduct adequate testing when testing could have helped prevent mass-infection. By April 29, medical staff had tested just 121 people.

The DOJ watchdog also found the facility’s virus screening system to be inadequate.

The report describes two instances in which staff members at Lompoc came to work with COVID-19 symptoms, but were not flagged during the screening process, and so continued to come to work while sick with the virus.

Additionally, “preexisting staffing shortages” may have led to cross-contamination between the different facilities within the complex. Medical staffing was only at 62 percent of where it needed to be, according to the report.

These staff shortages “may have increased the risk of COVID-19 transmission because the complex did not always have enough staff to allow Correctional Officers to remain in one facility.”

When the staff movement was finally restricted, it was already too late. The virus was embedded and spreading.

By comparison, the OIG praised officials and staff at another lockup — the Federal Correctional Complex in Tucson, AZ — for taking important precautionary actions before having to be told by BOP officials to take those steps.

As of the time of the inspection in mid-July, that prison had not produced a single known case of coronavirus among its incarcerated population (1,900 people), and just 11 cases among staff members. At the same time, COVID cases were spiking in Pima County and in Arizona in general.

Specifically, FCC Tucson was putting people entering the prison into 14 day quarantine and limiting staff movement between facilities before the BOP said to do so. Tucson was not short-staffed like Lompoc, however, and had empty housing units ready for quarantine.

As of July 24, more than 10,200 imprisoned people and over 1,000 BOP guards and staff had contracted the virus. (About half of those had recovered from the virus.) So far, 99 people in federal prison and one staff member have died of COVID-19. About 2,850 coronavirus tests are currently pending, and the bureau has completed testing for approximately 34,000 of the 143,000 people in BOP lockups and in community facilities. This equates to a testing rates of about 24 percent of the population. The OIG report notes that the low testing rate likely means that actual infection numbers are higher.

At the end of March, and again one week later on April 3, Attorney General William Barr sent memos directing BOP Director Michael Carvajal to move as many minimum-security inmates out of prison and into home confinement, or a similar situation, as was possible during the COVID-19 emergency in order to “combat the dangers” the virus posed to our most vulnerable inmates “while ensuring we successfully discharge our duty to protect the public.”

Since then, the bureau has moved 7,086 people (5 percent of the total BOP population) onto home confinement.

The OIG’s reports will not include recommendations, IG Horowitz said. Instead, they are meant to “assist the BOP and the Justice Department in identifying strategies to most effectively contain current and potential future COVID-19 outbreaks.” Horowitz says his office plans to issue a final report compiling the overall findings from the 16 inspections, 14 of which are still underway. This final report will include recommendations for combatting COVID spread behind bars.

26 Comments

  • Taylor and Celeste, I know you both would never accept the truth of your crusade to let loose on society as many criminals as possible, but I hope everyone ELSE reads the excellent opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. I’d cut and paste it here, but I know Celeste would never allow anything that doesn’t push the liberal psychobabble and madness of this site.

    “You’re More Likely to Catch Covid at Home Than in Jail,
    Early release policies have had no effect on transmission behind bars. But they have contributed to a crime wave.”

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/youre-more-likely-to-catch-covid-at-home-than-in-jail-11595628804?mod=flipboard

  • From the above WSJ opinion piece:

    “In fact, there has been no wave of mass deaths among prisoners. By mid-July, there were approximately 700 recorded deaths due to coronavirus among the 2.2 million prison and jail inmates in the U.S. That’s a mortality rate of roughly 32 deaths per 100,000 prisoners. In the nation as a whole, there were approximately 140,000 Covid-19 fatalities by mid-July. That’s a mortality rate of 42 per 100,000, including inmates. And prisoners who do contract the disease are dying at significantly lower rates (1% mortality) than the overall population (3.8%).”

  • Protestors since the Floyd death have helps create an explosion of Covid19 cases in LA County. The protests continue as cases continue to increase and deaths mount. Witness LA, local political leaders and the LA Times editorials have denounced the protestors as reckless. I know you not admonished the protesters but until you address their behavior and that of the local health departments failure to protect nursing home patients, you have zero credibility. I just want to make sure this issue is pointed out to your readers and donors.

  • WitnessLA is nothing but a pathetic propaganda pusher for the Leftest commies and traitors to this state and country. I can give a damn about prisoners dying.

    • For starters, its i could give a damn not i can give a damn and beside that nobody gives a damn if you die!? Do you honestly think the world cares if an ignorant pos like you dies?? Nope NOBODY CARES….. And just to educate you a lil bit not everybody in prisons are in there for murder or rape most if not 97% of prisons are ppl that have drug charges! NON VIOLENT so you shld really educate yourself before you go runnin that [WLA edit] of yours….

      • STFU with your 97% bs “Karen.” Obviously you love the bad boys like Celeste and Taylor but quit making things up and tossing it out here like it’s fact. It gets no play here with people who know their stats and been inside prisons dealing with the scum. Educate yourself!

      • Karen while we are grammar checking…
        It’s….a contraction for it is. Which would be the acceptable form of what you tried to do.
        We also capitalize I.
        Should, that’s how you should spell it!
        I realize English is probably your third language behind ignorance and liberal but please don’t grammar check and then kill off what’s left of the King’s English.

      • Clearly you got my point Karen and clearly my comment lit a fire up your white privileged arse without trying. Bahahahaha

        Trump2020

      • And, thanks Susan, a brilliant example of the people who actually believe liberal left wing bull$hit. Too uneducated to do any work for themselves and too ignorant to actually think for themselves.
        Bravo.
        Voter eligibility should absolutely have an IQ test as a requirement because we’re all screwed.

      • Susan,

        That’s simply not true – perhaps many years ago but not now.

        Due to legislative mandates, only folks convicted of the more serious crimes are being physically housed at a state prison. With very rare exception, lower level offenders are serving their sentences in county based facilities.

        Please go to the CDCR web site. Their reports share information about the make up of their population.

  • Interesting that I posted a link to a Wall Street Journal article saying inmates have a greater chance of getting Covid-19 at home than in prison and it was censured.

      • Susie, California dept of corrections stats from 2018 has drug offenders at slightly over 4% of the prison population. Took about 2 minutes to look that up, might want to do that next time instead taking the word of black lives matter and Antifa. Because it makes you look silly and lazy

  • Let’s make something clear. It is the obligation of Govt to protect the men and women who are in custody of Govt. This has for the most part occurred. Govt has taken reasonable steps to protect inmates but they did not do the same for the elderly in nursing homes. This hypocrisy continued with selective shut downs. They have said almost nothing about the passing of Covid19 during protest but have threatened businesses if they opened and shamed Southern California beach goers. Your continued efforts for inmates during Covid19 is clearly advocacy journalism. It is important that everyone gets it’s not balanced nor does it really address our most pressing issues during this pandemic.

  • @ProJustice I’m not sorry I hurt your pussy. You silly snowflakes get offended by the truth so easily.

    Trump2020

  • All you people are arguing over the things that are not important like spelling and crap… Inmates that are ill or facing death because of this virus are people and not Scum. A good percent of the prison population have had to take pleas that were offered to them to get lower sentences or proceed to trial and get a heavy sentence if you were convicted by a jury. The prosecutors are very well trained in written plea deals, and judges will almost always side with the prosecutors at sentencing it does not matter to them if you really are innocent they just want that conviction. The justice system is not really what a lot of people think it is. Until you are incarcerated yourself and truly innocent facing a plea bargain that is bullshit but you have no choice but to sign this deal you have no right to call them Scum. And yes there are inmates there that truly belong there for there crimes like sex offenders or violent criminals. But that should be the screening process that they must do to protect the community from these offenders. So don’t think your so high and mighty because some day you may be in there shoes and you are innocent but you have to take that bullshit plea and sign that agreement that sounds like you are the biggest drug dealer or the biggest what ever because you have no choice. Its a scary thing. None of them want to be there at a time like this where now its a death sentence and they didn’t sign for that. It could be you the Scum and no one cares or gives a shit if you rotten in there. Think about it don’t be so heartless….

    • I just want to know what they’re going to do is Tucson prison is overflowing with virus cases my fiance has less than 30 days on his sentence and I don’t understand why they can’t release some of these low these vulnerable he’s over 55 and very ill while he’s there so I don’t understand why they’re not doing anything here in Arizona California releasing and so are other states but for some reason Arizona ain’t doing nothing

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