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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 29th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 22 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 22

Court order, federal inspection agree with class-action lawsuit's claims that Lompoc penitentiary could have better stopped the spread of COVID-19 with more home confinement

By MALEA MARTIN

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series examining pandemic response in the federal prison at Lompoc.

Though the number of active COVID-19 cases reported from Lompoc’s federal prison has decreased dramatically since May 11—when more than 75 percent of prisoners in one facility tested positive—pro bono lawyers and governmental entities alike are still probing for answers as to what happened and whether the outbreak could have been better mitigated.


FIGHTING FOR CHANGE
Lawyers representing a class-action lawsuit aren’t the only ones calling for change within the Lompoc prison. Here, a rally organizer protests in front of the penitentiary on April 25.
FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF LOMPOC PRISON RALLY ORGANIZERS

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

Lawyers from Bird Marella P.C., the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Prison Law Office are representing the class members of the case, which alleges that Lompoc prison leadership did not make full use of its ability to release prisoners into home confinement. 

The case claims that its lack of using home confinement, combined with the prison’s allegedly inadequate medical care for inmates, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

When the Sun asked the BOP for comment on the lawsuit and recent court order, Public Affairs Officer Emery Nelson wrote in an email that “the Bureau of Prisons does not comment on pending litigation or matters that are the subject of legal proceedings.”

About a week after the July 14 court order, the Office of the Inspector General—a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice—released a remote inspection report of Lompoc FCC. 

Among the July 23 report’s findings was that the “BOP’s use of home confinement in response to the spread of COVID-19 at FCC Lompoc in April, as a mechanism to reduce either the at-risk inmate population or the overall prison population in order to assist with social distancing, was extremely limited.”

Bureau representative Nelson commented on the findings in an email to the Sun

“These findings must be placed in context, as these were unique circumstances where the BOP, along with the rest of the country, was learning about how to treat and manage this novel virus,” Nelson wrote. “The mitigation of COVID-19 in all of our facilities, including FCC Lompoc, has been and remains our highest priority.”

Naeun Rim, a lead Bird Marella attorney working on the class-action case, told the Sun that the new report backs up claims that the counsel already submitted to the court, thus further substantiating and corroborating the evidence.

“For Lompoc in particular, it’s not just an ACLU lawsuit alleging these things,” she said. “Now OIG [Office of the Inspector General], which is an arm of the government, has come in and said that [the prison] handled things poorly, and more poorly in comparison to other prisons.”

One example of Lompoc’s comparative response, according to the report, is seen in the prison’s implementation of social distancing and limiting staff movement.

On March 13 the BOP directed wardens to implement modified operations to maximize social distancing, the report states. Then on May 31, the BOP Western Regional Office directed Lompoc to implement these measures as well as eliminate staff movement between the prison’s various facilities, if possible. However, staff members were not directed to do so by the acting complex warden until April 14. 

“In comparison, for example, FCC Tucson in Tucson, Arizona, an institution in the same BOP region as FCC Lompoc but without staffing concerns or a COVID-19 outbreak in April, fully implemented its staff movement restrictions on April 5,” the report adds in a footnote.

The report continues that, due to a staffing shortage, “Lompoc officials told us that they could not fully implement the compartmentalization of staff.” 

In late March, Attorney General William Barr advised that inmates with certain health risks be considered for transfer to home confinement to mitigate the rising numbers of infections. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act further encouraged these transfers, Rim said. 

The Sun asked the BOP public affairs office for the number of inmates transferred to home confinement from Lompoc FCC in late April. BOP representative Scott Taylor responded in an April 28 email, stating that “given the fluid nature of the pandemic situation, we are just providing the total number of inmates transferred to home confinement across the Bureau of Prisons,” and would not provide Lompoc-specific transfer numbers. 

In the same email, Taylor added that “the BOP has begun immediately reviewing all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors, as described by the CDC, to determine which inmates are suitable for home confinement.”

The recent inspector general report, however, revealed the number of Lompoc-specific home confinement transfers from April 4 to May 15. 

The BOP Central Office determined that 509 total Lompoc inmates were potentially eligible for transfer to home confinement during that time frame, and it sent those names to Lompoc prison leadership in a series of rosters. But as of May 13, with more than 900 Lompoc inmates having tested positive for COVID-19, “only eight inmates had been transferred to home confinement in accordance with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) authorities and BOP guidance,” the report states. 

As of July 10, Lompoc prison had released 45 inmates to home confinement, U.S. Representative Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) told the Sun. 

Carbajal said he learned of these updated numbers during a July 10 conversation with a Lompoc prison warden. He added that the conversation was one of the few times that prison leadership has been communicative and responsive to him. 

But even with the new transfers, the court granted the lawsuit’s home confinement claims with a July 14 preliminary injunction. 

In other words, home confinement is a disease-mitigation tool that Lompoc prison leadership had at its disposal, and the court order agreed with the claims that it was not fully used. 

Rim called it a case of “deliberate indifference.”

“The first claim, which is what the preliminary injunction granted, is that it was deliberately indifferent of [the prison] to not make full use of their ability to release more people into home confinement, or to accelerate other release decisions, in the middle of a global pandemic,” Rim explained. 

She added that releasing inmates into home confinement isn’t the equivalent of a sentence reduction: It’s a temporary measure to decrease overcrowding and prevent the spread of the virus. Once the threat of the virus resolves, Rim said, those released on home confinement would still be required to serve any remainder of their sentences.

Part of that July 14 preliminary injunction is the court order, the lawsuit’s latest victory, which requires the BOP to consider home confinement for individuals incarcerated at Lompoc who are either over the age of 50 or who have certain underlying health conditions. 

Those individuals will be collectively represented as a class by the legal counsel, the order states, and “no later than July 28, 2020, respondents [the prison] shall make full and speedy use of their authority under the CARES Act and evaluate each class member’s eligibility for home confinement.”

Sara Norman, managing attorney at the Prison Law Office and one of the lawyers working on the case, told the Sun about the tangible outcomes that are expected as a result of the order.

“We fully expect that with the scrutiny from the court, to ensure that the prison officials follow the policy directions that are required of them, that we will see a significant rise in the number of people who are found to qualify [for home confinement],” Norman said. 

But the prison failing to “use their full authority to evaluate people to be placed on home confinement,” Rim said, is only half of the story. A second category of claims alleges that some actions the prison did choose to take may have been unconstitutional as well—even if the explicit intention was to stop the spread.

“From our perspective, it’s not just that [these actions] didn’t work to prevent the spread of the illness, but that it made it worse,” Rim said. 

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








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