WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal prison complex in California struggled to contain the spread of the coronavirus because of staff shortages, limited use of home confinement and ineffective screening, the Justice Department watchdog said Thursday as it released the first results of remote inspections of facilities across the country.
The report found that staff members at the Bureau of Prisons facility in Lompoc, California, went to work despite experiencing coronavirus symptoms and that officials in March failed to test or isolate an inmate who had begun having symptoms two days earlier and eventually tested positive.
As of mid-July, four inmates had died and more than 1,000 had tested positive, according to the inspector general’s office, which has embarked on a review of 16 prisons, halfway houses and other institutions.
The response from the Bureau of Prisons to the growing coronavirus crisis in prisons has raised alarm among advocates and lawmakers about whether the agency is doing enough to ensure the safety of the nearly 150,000 inmates serving time in federal facilities.
BOP figures from earlier this month indicate positive COVID-19 tests for 8,642 inmates and 887 staff members, according to the report, though limited testing within the facilities means the numbers are likely much higher.
In Lompoc, which has four facilities housing about 2,700 low-, minimum- and medium-security inmates, the percentage of positive tests has been substantial, the report said. In one facility, more than 75% of inmates who were tested had positive results as of mid-May.
The report singles out several problems in the response by the Lompoc complex, including a preexisting shortage of correctional workers and medical staffers that impeded the ability to properly screen for the virus and to implement movement restrictions.
Those shortages as the virus was beginning to spread last spring “may have increased the risk of COVID-19 transmission because the complex did not always have enough staff to allow Correctional Officers to remain in one facility,” the watchdog’s report said.
In addition, though Attorney General William Barr directed the federal prison system to reduce the prison population by making more liberal use of home confinement and to expand the criteria for such transfers, Lompoc officials did so sparingly.
“Despite this admonition, the data does not reflect that the BOP took immediate action at Lompoc,” the report said.
When the inspector general’s office asked why only 34 inmates had been moved out of the complex as of mid-May, the acting warden said the institution would not transfer inmates until a halfway house could confirm that it was available to assume responsibility for them.
The inspector general also released its review of the federal prison complex in Tucson, Arizona, which it said had successfully implemented social distancing measures and repurposed empty housing units into quarantine and medical isolation areas.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz said the reports released Thursday didn’t include recommendations.
“Rather,” Horowitz said in a video statement accompanying the release of the reports, “our reports are intended to assist the BOP and the Justice Department in identifying strategies to most effectively contain current and potential future COVID-19 outbreaks.”