Virus Outbreak in LA-Area Federal Prison the Worst in the System

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Covid-19 outbreak at Terminal Island federal prison in Los Angeles County has infected more than half of the men incarcerated there and killed two, the most severe in the federal prison system that has worried family members and legal advocates bracing for the worst.

The low-security federal prison in the California port city of San Pedro houses 1,055 men. As of Tuesday, at least 570 of incarcerated men at the prison as well as 20 staff members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons data

Two inmates died after contracting SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, according to Bureau of Prisons data, which shows more inmates tested positive for the virus at Terminal Island than any other federal prison in the nation.

Federal data showed 443 inmates at Terminal Island tested positive for the virus Tuesday morning, suggesting the number increased by over 100 in less than a day.

In a system that incarcerates nearly 153,000 people, at least 1,534 inmates and 343 prison staff have tested positive for the virus while 31 inmates have died of Covid-19 symptoms, according to BOP data. 

Anthony M. Solis, an attorney representing a man in his 20s who is incarcerated at Terminal Island, said his client told him some inmates have been moved into a dilapidated, rat-infested warehouse amid the outbreak.

“I’m going to file a motion to get some kind of relief for him, maybe a compassionate release,” Solis said in an interview. “But the government will say those require an exhaustion of all administrative remedies. But no one’s got that kind of time with this virus spreading.”

Solis said the man’s family, which lives in Riverside, California, have also petitioned the prison for relief but have not received a response.

Jennifer Van Atta of Carlsbad, California, said she’s worried about her husband Maurice Smith, who is in his 50s and incarcerated at Terminal Island. 

Van Atta said Smith, whom she says is prediabetic and has high blood pressure, wrote to her in a letter saying he and other inmates had flu-like symptoms recently but were not attended to properly by staff.

“He said [the virus] attacks the brain and that the shivers are awful. He would get so hot he would start imagining things and had to bring himself back to reality,” Van Atta said in an interview. “At this point, I don’t know if he’s OK. I can’t get through to prison staff and no one returns any calls.”

Greg Stevens, a virology expert at the University of Southern California, said the novel coronavirus can spread rapidly in prison settings. 

“It takes only a single case to start a very quick spread, especially in close quarters. But with prisons already operating at over capacity, and some above 150% capacity, it is certainly harder to social distance,” said Stevens in an interview. “Prisons may be similarly challenged settings compared to nursing homes. Both settings have patients with greater underlying health conditions compared to the general population, and that puts them at elevated risk.”

U.S. Representative Nanette Diaz Barragan, who represents the district where the prison is located, wrote on Twitter her office is seeking answers about the outbreak. 

“This is not acceptable,” Barragan tweeted Tuesday. “It is clear they are not making sure these inmates are protected. The government has a responsibility to protect people in its care, including inmates. Being incarcerated at #TerminalIsland should not be a death sentence.”

Barragan spokesperson Ron Eckstein said the congresswoman sent BOP a letter requesting both details on the outbreak and a meeting with Terminal Island prison warden Felicia Ponce.

“On a staff level, we’ve reached out to [BOP] officials,” Eckstein said. “We’ve heard nothing in response. After this explosion in cases it’s obvious it’s being mishandled.”

News of the outbreak was first reported by CBS Los Angeles reporter David Goldstein.

David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union said in an email the outbreak is tragic but also predictable under typical prison settings. 

“The bureau has stubbornly resisted calls to reduce prison populations to allow social distancing, improved sanitation, and other life-saving measures, and the consequences could well be deadly,” said Fathi. “If the prisoners have the virus today, staff will have it tomorrow, and the community will have it the day after that.”

Ryan Leone, a prison reform activist based in LA, said he is not surprised by the outbreak.

“All prisons are essentially incubators for a virus,” said Leone, who has served time in federal and state prisons, said in an interview. “It’s a confined setting. Cleanliness is definitely not something that is espoused or made accessible.”

Leone said the outbreak at Terminal Island highlights the need for sweeping reforms of the federal system, including release of elderly and immune-compromised people and those who committed nonviolent offenses or low-level drug crimes. 

“It’s not fair to give nonviolent offenders a death sentence,” said Leone.

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in an email he fears the coronavirus spread is worse than testing by prison officials currently shows.

“The virus spreads quickly because there is no social distancing and bad hygiene,” Ring said. “Our argument is that policymakers need to either keep people safe or send them home. We can’t flatten the curve if we allow Covid-19 to spread throughout prisons because these facilities in our communities will suffer. Prisons are not cruise ships that we can seal off.”

In response to the outbreak, prison officials have suspended visitation and cut off phone and email access until May 18.

“This action is being taken to prevent transmission of the virus by touching keyboards and phone handsets,” a statement on the prison’s website said. “The highest priority remains ensuring the safety of the inmates and staff while decreasing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.”

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the prison’s response to the outbreak. 

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