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Families of Inmates at LA-Area Prison Demand Answers as Outbreak Worsens

Over half of the inmates at Terminal Island federal prison near Los Angeles have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

SAN PEDRO, CALIF. (CN) — Dozens of family members of men incarcerated at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles County marched and chanted outside the facility Friday demanding answers about their relatives’ health condition as the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the system has infected 600 men and claimed five lives.

As of Friday, at least 615 men incarcerated at the prison in San Pedro, California, have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons data.

Of the nearly 1,050 men incarcerated at the low-security facility — which serves inmates with long-term medical or mental health needs — five have died from Covid-19 complications. Eleven prison staff have also tested positive for the virus.

More inmates have tested positive for the virus at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution than any other facility in the federal prison system, which houses nearly 153,000 people nationwide.

The Fort Wort federal prison in Texas has the second highest number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 439 inmates testing positive for the virus.

Outside the facility Friday, dozens of family members of men incarcerated at Terminal Island prison held signs that read “Inmates Lives Matter” and chanted loudly, demanding compassionate release for their relatives as guards looked on from prison outposts.

Jackeline Vasquez said she drove from her home in Las Vegas, Nevada, Thursday night to advocate on behalf of her brother Edgar Vasquez, who is 32 and has served five years at the prison.

The 25-year-old Nevadan said she last heard from her brother in letter he mailed two weeks ago, in which he described lockdown conditions at the prison.

Jackeline Vasquez (left) holds a sign that says “We Are Your Voice” as part of a rally by families demanding answers about their relatives’ health during a Covid-19 outbreak at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles County. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

“Not one letter since then,” Jackeline Vasquez said. “The numbers [of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the prison] are just skyrocketing and that worries me. Today, I want to hear about my brother and how he’s doing.”

In a phone call three weeks ago, Edgar told her inmates with fevers above 100 degrees were being quarantined in a dirty warehouse.

“He said, ‘Don’t tell my mom, I don’t want to worry her, but I have body aches and I have a cough’ and I could hear him coughing,” Jackeline Vasquez said. “The [warehouse] ceiling was leaking. It was inhabited by bats, pigeons and the windows were broken. They had four sinks, four toilets and four showers for 60 inmates.”

Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Justin Long said in an email the prison is quarantining inmates who test positive for the virus but that social-distancing requirements for such tight quarters make the effort more challenging.

“FCI Terminal Island has tackled this challenge by placing over 200 beds in alternative housing to create space,” Long wrote. “On the prison grounds, inmates are being housed in multiple temperature-controlled field living quarters made available through [a contract with] the U.S. Coast Guard. Additionally, the existing prison industry factory and visiting room have been repurposed for inmate housing.”

Maureen Hines, whose son Russell Ogden is incarcerated at Terminal Island, said quarantine conditions inside the prison are likely not sanitary, based on what her son has said about the facility.

“There’s always rats, pigeons and feces inside the prison,” said Hines. “If there’s healthy people housed here, how are they gonna stay health?”

Hines said inmates should not be allowed to remain inside the prison while the deadly respiratory disease spreads.

“[My son] received a parole date, not a death sentence,” said Hines. “I want to be there when he gets out on parole.”

Hines’ daughter Sandra said with the pandemic-fueled economic downturn, her family members aren’t working and can’t afford to hire legal advocates for her brother.

“Everything costs money and no one is working so it’s hard right now,” she said. “But this is scary. It’s a walking mortuary in there.”

The Bureau of Prisons said prison staff partnered with LA County Public Health officials to test all inmates for the respiratory disease beginning on April 23, when the prison had only 65 confirmed cases.

A least 1,000 inmates have been tested as of Thursday, though only 10% of those who test positive for Covid-19 exhibit symptoms such as a fever or coughing.

Phone and email access remain restricted for inmates as the prison moves to stem the outbreak, the bureau said.

Criminal defense attorney Marri Derby said the family of her client David Kim has not heard from him in over three weeks and has been unable to get answers from staff at Terminal Island prison, where he’s housed.

Kim, a chiropractor serving a 30-month sentence for insurance fraud, has diabetes and is “frail,” according to Derby, who has also not received a response from prison officials.

“My client’s family has heard nothing from Mr. Kim, including not receiving any letters,” Derby said in an email. “They are obviously concerned.”

Attorney Michael Clough has two clients at Terminal Island and has not heard from, one of whom is in his mid-50s and has been hospitalized after contracting the virus, according to the man’s family.

“Ironically, both are cases where I was appointed/retained to address issues involving ineffective assistance of counsel in plea negotiations — and in arguing the prejudice they suffered, I argued that because of their age and health, their pleas amounted to de facto death sentences,” said Clough.

Marc Stern, a correctional health care expert at the University of Washington, said in a phone interview a virus like Covid-19 can spread easily in congregate settings such as prisons.

“I describe prisons as landlocked cruise ships,” said Stern. “If anything, they are worse than cruise ships because cruise ships are totally contained vessels.”

Prison guards and other staff can also spread the virus to their communities when they go home, Stern said.

As prison reform advocates and families of inmates push for administrative relief or action from federal courts on compassionate release, Stern said all parties should weigh the benefits and risks of such action.

“The question is which is the greatest risk,” Stern said. “What is the crime they committed? Where will they stay? How well do they understand quarantine measures? Is there home in a community with a high rate of infection?”

Stern said the options of either releasing every inmate, as some are advocating for, or keeping everyone incarcerated are both irrational approaches to the outbreak.

“The goal should be to put out as many people as is safe,” Stern said. “But also someone might be more dangerous to the totality of community safety. There is no easy way to do this.” 

Federal Correctional Institution Terminal Island, near Los Angeles. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

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