Prison Pandemic Response: Lompoc Fiasco
In July of 2020, the Department of Justice released a Pandemic Response Report dealing with the remote inspection of Lompoc FCC after a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 across the facilities at Lompoc. This is a rare look at a prison response to a pandemic. This report was the result of an investigation considering staff interviews and surveys, documents, complaints, and demographic data made available by the BOP meant to investigate the cause of such a sprawling outbreak and identify potential problems in the institution’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ultimately, issues with the containment of COVID-19 within Lompoc FCC were a result of insufficient structures to manage the volume of inmates currently incarcerated there and an unwillingness to reduce the prison population to remedy these insufficiencies. The investigation found that staffing shortages, problems with testing and screening, lack of materials and structures to implement preventative and isolating procedures, and limited use of home confinement and compassionate release authorities all contributed to the rapid community spread of COVID-19 at Lompoc FCC.
With regards to staffing, Lompoc FCC was a t 62% staffing capacity before the start of COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, there was no permanent complex Warden as of January. Over the span of the prison pandemic response thus far, three different acting complex Wardens have taken temporary leadership positions, causing limited communication regarding changing procedures and the progress of the COVID-19 virus. While guidance to BOP staff was documented, there were gaps in the plan of action. For instance, there is no documentation of a plan to notify staff members who had been in close contact with a colleague who tested positive. This lack of communication as a result of impermanent leadership was one possible factor that prevented the staff at Lompoc FCC from fully complying with protocols issued by the BOP.
These failings were compounded by staffing shortages; while the BOP required affected institutions to limit staff movement between units and facilities, Lompoc was not able to implement this until over two weeks later. While temporary staff has been relocated to help Lompoc FCC comply with BOP guidance, the report indicates that staffing will remain a problem and potentially continue to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 once these temporary staffing relocations come to an end.
Limited medical staff also led to inconstant or ineffective screening protocols. While the institution reports screening staff for multiple symptoms, some staff reported only screening for fever. Early positive cases among staff members were missed by the screening process because symptoms were either unreported or unincluded in the screening protocol. Additionally, the lack of medical staff prevented adequate assessment of inmates early in the process. Even after the BOP recommended to isolation and testing of symptomatic and high-risk inmates with possible exposure to the virus, the first positive case in an inmate was left in general population untested despite presenting multiple symptoms and preexisting risk factors for five days, almost guaranteeing community spread.
Additional testing was administered at first to symptomatic inmates and eventually to all inmates for a brief period of time in May during which almost 75% of tests came back positive. The prison pandemic response then stopped testing, saying that the outbreak was under control and widespread testing was “no longer necessary”. It is unclear whether any decline in positive cases preceded this decision. Current numbers reported by the BOP reflect this renewed limited testing – a complaint across many prisons. While the BOP reports decreasing numbers of positive cases among inmates, testing has not been consistently performed in every institution.
The institution reports that personal protective equipment, hygiene materials, and quarantine procedures are adequate, however, staff surveys say differently. 70% of staff say that BOP staff need more PPE. 46% say inmates need more PPE. While hygiene kits have been distributed to inmates, 36% of staff say that inmates need more hygiene materials. This is a particularly relevant observation because lockdown procedures have prevented over 1,000 inmates from having shower access and proper hygiene is a basic tenant of community spread prevention. 55% of staff say that staff also need increase hygiene materials like sanitizer. 50% of staff indicated that they need more space in order to properly quarantine sick or exposed inmates. Again, the prison pandemic response indicates severe shortages of staff, equipment and attention.
The infrastructure at Lompoc is variable but overall inconducive to social distancing as cells are open-bar rather than solid-door and numerous inmates are housed in dorm-style bedding with numerous inmates in one room on bunks only 3 feet apart. These issues were brought to the attention of leadership several weeks after initial cases were reported within the institution. Extra space has been designated for social distancing, however, there is not enough room to properly quarantine, contrary to the reports of the institution. Only 31% of staff say that exposed inmates are quarantined for 14 days. It is also important to note that this report did not survey inmates and that many inmates have contacted our office to report substandard conditions.
Many of these problems come back to the overcrowding of the prison. Lompoc FCC, along with institutions across the country, has many more inmates in its custody than it can handle with proper distancing, quarantining, and staff movement protocols. The introduction of the CARES Act in March was meant to remedy this situation by authorizing and encouraging immediate home confinement for eligible inmates. At the beginning of April, the Attorney General issued a statement asking highly affected prisons such as Lompoc FCC to “Immediately maximize appropriate transfers to home confinement.” Lompoc FCC simply failed to utilize this authority and placed numerous inmates and staff in significant danger as a result.
Home confinement under the CARES Act includes several stipulations and limitations imposed by the BOP, however, even with these modifications, the BOP Central Office identified 509 potential candidates for home confinement housed at Lompoc FCC. As of May 13th, over a month after the memorandum issued by the Attorney General and over a month following the passing of the CARES Act, only 8 inmates had been released. Several more have been released since this date, however, the number remains limited.
When asked about these low numbers, the institution indicated that these inmates would be a hazard to public safety if released. The report indicates that, while public safety does weigh heavily on these decisions, the numbers are simply too low to be useful and lower than what is necessitated to ensure public safety as 87% of inmates who would be released within the next 6th months regardless of situations related to COVID-19 were denied home confinement or early release. This prison pandemic report also found that CARES Act requests were prioritized over compassionate release requests as compassionate release requests could be deferred to a judge and COVID-19 alone was not usually considered an extraordinary and compelling reason.
Because so many of the concerns related to Lompoc FCC’s handling of the most recent COVID-19 outbreak could be remedied by reducing the prison population, further investigation into home confinement and compassionate release capabilities is forthcoming. This report confirms long held suggestions that the COVID-19 pandemic could be extremely dangerous to the prison population, but also sheds new light on long held prison advocacy terms regarding prison conditions and populations as decreased prison population and conditions with higher standards of sanitation could mitigate the dangers posed by COVID-19. Expanding the use of home confinement and compassionate release authorities would also provide information regarding potential alternative punitive measures that could be further utilized in the future.
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