The Justice Department’s internal watchdog found that a federal prison in California, where nearly 1,000 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, was slow to implement safety measures and lacked adequate staffing to confront the growing pandemic.
At Federal Correctional Complex Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County, California, a nationwide order to restrict the movement of prison staff wasn’t fully implemented for more than two weeks because of a staff shortage — possibly allowing workers to bring the virus inside prison walls, a review released Thursday by the Justice Inspector General’s office found. Two staff members who showed up for work in late March with coronavirus symptoms made it past a weak screening process, and one inmate who had complained of coronavirus symptoms on March 22, wasn’t isolated or tested for days.
The review of Lompoc represents the first official scrutiny of the federal prison system’s handling of coronavirus after months of dire warnings from advocates and politicians that more needed to be done to protect the vulnerable prison population. Ninety-eight federal inmates have died since the start of the pandemic, including four at the California prison.
In April, as the number of positive inmate cases across the federal system jumped towards 500, the inspector general’s office announced it would begin a series of remote inspections of a selection of the Bureau of Prison’s 122 facilities. The watchdog office has since surveyed over 38,000 prison employees nationwide and conducted phone interviews with staffers as well as a review of documents and data at 16 sites. The report on Lompoc, as well as a second report on FCC Tuscon in Arizona, are the first to be released, with more expected in the coming months.
In an interview with CNN in April, the director of the Bureau of Prisons called confronting the pandemic the most challenging situation the federal prison situation has been confronted with in decades.
"I don't think anybody was ready for this Covid, so we're dealing with it just as well as anybody else and I'd be proud to say we're doing pretty good," Michael Carvajal said in his first interview since being named director amid the pandemic.
The Bureau of Prisons has taken a wide range of steps since the virus was first detected — shutting down visitations, instituting quarantines for all new inmates temporarily moving all of the country's 150,000 federal inmates into near-isolation.
Attorney General William Barr also directed prison officials to expand programs to release certain vulnerable inmates early into home confinement in an effort to protect them from the virus and thin out the population of overburdened facilities.
While the report released Thursday found that the Bureau of Prisons surged resources to an office that considered inmates for early release —cutting down processing times from months to just two weeks — the application of the new abilities to release prisoners early as a result of the pandemic was “extremely limited” at Lompoc. Only eight inmates had been transferred to home confinement under the new programs by mid-May, while more than 900 inmates had been sickened by the virus there, according to the inspector general review.
For those that remained bars, their access to medical treatment was limited by a severe staffing shortage. When the outbreak hit Lompoc, medical staffing at the prison was at just 62%. The prison’s ability to screen inmates for coronavirus symptoms was negatively impacted as a result, the report concludes. The Bureau of Prisons has since dispatched additional medical staff as well as correctional officers to prisons facing staffing shortages, including Lompoc.
Seventy percent of Lompoc staff surveyed by the inspector general’s office also said that staff needed more personal protective equipment, and 36% said that inmates needed more hygienic products — despite masks and hygiene kits being handed out by the prison weeks into the pandemic.
By contrast, no inmates have tested positive for coronavirus at the federal prison in Tuscon whose response to the pandemic was detailed in the second report released by the inspector general on Thursday.
That report found that adequate staffing levels and empty housing units that could be converted to quarantine space allowed the facility to prevent the introduction of the virus from the outside world. Still, 77% of staff surveyed by the inspector general’s office at the Tuscon prison said they wanted more protective equipment.
BOP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.