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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on August 5th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 23 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 23

People incarcerated at the Lompoc penitentiary speak out about how they were treated during one of the largest COVID-19 prison outbreaks in the nation

By MALEA MARTIN

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series examining pandemic response in the federal prison at Lompoc. The first part (“Constitutionally confined?” July 30) covered a class-action lawsuit that pushed for more inmates to be released to home confinement.

 A class-action lawsuit filed against the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex achieved a recent victory on July 14 when the court ordered the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to consider home confinement for individuals incarcerated at Lompoc that are either over the age of 50 or who have certain underlying health conditions. 


VOICES FROM INSIDE
Timothy Hawkins, pictured here, is currently incarcerated at Lompoc USP. He told the Sun that shower access was suspended for more than two weeks at one point during the height of the prison’s COVID-19 outbreak.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TIMOTHY HAWKINS

But lawyers working on the case told the Sun that increasing home confinement is only half the battle. A second category of claims in the suit alleges that certain actions the prison did take may have made the situation worse, and perhaps were even unconstitutional.

One of those actions was placing sick inmates into the special housing unit, known among prisoners as “the hole.”

“They were placing people in solitary, which is basically punitive, under the guise of trying to help them from a health standpoint,” said Naeun Rim, a lawyer from Bird Marella P.C. who’s working on the case.

Shoshana Bannett, another Bird Marella lawyer involved with the case, said the practice does not line up with governmental guidelines.

“Isolating COVID-19 positive prisoners in cells used for punitive measures in this manner [is] contrary to CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines for correctional facilities,” she wrote in an email.

“It clearly was not done from a public health, professional opinion standpoint,” Rim added.

The Sun asked the BOP for comment on its alleged use of solitary confinement as a way to medically isolate inmates. 

In a July 31 email response, BOP representative Justin Long wrote, “We do not provide the specific location of particular housing quarters, but we can confirm that all of our correctional institutions have areas set aside for quarantine and isolation. … All inmates are managed per CDC guidelines.”

Timothy Hawkins, who is currently incarcerated at Lompoc’s United States Penitentiary (USP) facility, told the Sun that he witnessed this practice and was relieved to not have experienced it himself. Hawkins and the Sun have exchanged letters and email communications since mid-May. 

“From what I know of the infected people that have made it back to the unit, when they were suspected of having the virus they were taken to the SHU (special housing unit), aka the hole, and placed in solitary,” Hawkins wrote in letter he sent in late May. “I haven’t caught any tickets to be placed back there. This is a good thing!”

Sara Norman from the Prison Law Office, another lawyer on the case, explained why using solitary confinement as medical isolation can do more harm than good.  

“It’s absolutely crucial that when people are confirmed cases of COVID, or symptomatic, to put them in what’s called medical isolation to reduce their contact with other people,” Norman said, “but not to make it punitive, to restrict their privileges. The difference is incredibly important, because if people know that they’re going to the hole, they will refuse to be tested often. When people refuse to be tested in large numbers, you have a big problem at an institution.”

Another allegation addressed by both the court case and the inspector general report is the BOP’s temporary suspension of shower, phone, email, and commissary access. 

Hawkins told the Sun in an early June letter that he was not given shower access for more than two weeks. 

“When everything started, they were letting us out to shower every other day,” he wrote. “Then, maybe around the time the first death occurred in here, they advised us that we would be locked down for two weeks. During these two weeks we did not get showers. They did come around with some of the soap packets. … They passed them out once a week, but we had to bathe in the sink.”

According to the July 23 report from the Office of the Inspector General, Lompoc officials “implemented these additional [shower] restrictions because they believed them to be necessary to control the spread of COVID-19.”

The report states, “The officials told us that they initially allowed inmates to shower in smaller groups, but because COVID-19 cases continued to rise across the complex, they determined that more aggressive mitigation was necessary.”  

Bannett, one of the lawyers representing class members, wrote that the shower suspension is among the “issues that we have raised with the court as evidence of the constitutional violations occurring at Lompoc.” 

“These decisions are being made by people who don’t understand public health, who don’t understand medical care. It’s coming from a very institutionalized mindset,” Rim added. “With respect to the showering, that’s a basic human rights problem.”

The Sun asked the BOP about the claim that showers were suspended for more than two weeks in the USP. In a July 2 email response, the public affairs office did not directly address the question, but rather gave an update on the current situation, which now allows for “inmate movement in small numbers.” 

The Sun followed up, asking again whether or not showers were suspended for two weeks. A July 24 response didn’t address the question either, instead providing another update on current practices.

“Inmates have regular controlled movements up to five times per week in small numbers to access commissary, laundry, showers, recreation, telephone, and email stations, and medical and mental health care,” representative Long wrote.

Another allegation in the lawsuit that’s addressed in the inspector general’s report is that COVID-19 testing at Lompoc was inadequate.

“As evidenced by the small number of active cases (eight at USP Lompoc and zero at FCI Lompoc) and large number of recovered cases (164 at USP Lompoc and 826 at FCI Lompoc), FCC Lompoc’s methodology effectively limited the the virus’ impact within its facilities,” BOP representative Long wrote in the July 24 email. 

But despite the small numbers of active cases, lawyer Bannett wrote in her email to the Sun that widespread testing is still critical. 

“It does not appear that any ongoing testing is occurring to try to identify asymptomatic prisoners anywhere at the Lompoc complex,” Bannett wrote. “This is extremely problematic given the inability to social distance, lack of adequate hygiene, and the fact that Lompoc failed to quarantine and isolate prisoners that have been exposed to COVID-19 in accordance with CDC guidelines.”  

The prison conducted universal testing in Lompoc’s Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), a separate facility from the USP, in early May. The inspector general report details those results.

“Lompoc officials reported that the institution started testing for all 1,162 FCI inmates on May 4 through a contracted third party,” the report states. “By May 11, at least 891 FCI inmates had tested positive for COVID-19,” nearly a 77 percent positivity rate.

“Subsequently, Lompoc officials indicated to the OIG [Office of the Inspector General] that the institution would not continue testing of all inmates because the outbreak at the USP and camps had subsided and universal testing was no longer warranted,” the report continues, “although ‘targeted testing in specific units that have an active case’ might be conducted on an as-needed basis.”

Hawkins, who is incarcerated in the USP, told the Sun that he was eventually tested. However, he said, he was never informed of his results.

The Sun also spoke with Hollie Mowry, the daughter of a man named Charles Molesworth who was incarcerated at Lompoc FCI. 

Molesworth wrote a letter to his daughter, dated May 26, which details the death of an inmate named Mohamed Yusuf, who lived on the same floor as Molesworth, Mowry said. 

Yusuf “had been complaining that he couldn’t breathe for several days,” Molesworth wrote in the letter. “But yesterday, after we went down to pick up our lunches, he crashed. I’ve had several different reports as to the specifics from people who were there, but the crux is he died. When he fell out, someone went to the red emergency phone to summon help, and no one answered.”

Rim said that multiple accounts from those who witnessed Yusuf’s death are included in the documents her legal team submitted to the court. She said those accounts are consistent with Molesworth’s claims, particularly that Yusuf’s medical requests were ignored and that medical attention arrived well after he collapsed. 

“If there had been less people inside, could he have gotten medical attention? That’s the question that people need to be asking,” Rim said. “It’s not just about if they deserve to be let out. Not every individual person may be suitable for home confinement, but ... when you’re not doing everything you can to reduce the population so you can take care of somebody like [Yusuf], that’s where you’re running into the constitutional problem.”

Rim said many inmates “were traumatized by this story.”

“It points out the abhorrent level of medical care here, something that is endemic throughout BOP and incarceration in general,” Molesworth wrote in his letter. “Once you are in custody, you are no longer human, no longer deserving of decent care.” 

Mowry said her father was recently transferred to a halfway house to serve the remainder of his sentence. 

“I can only assume the ACLU lawsuit and the judge’s orders made that happen,” Mowry wrote.

Staff Writer Malea Martin can be reached at mmartin@santamariasun.com.









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