One federal prison saw more than 1,000 inmates test positive for the coronavirus, exposing serious holes in the Bureau of Prisons’ operations during the pandemic, according to a new inspector general’s report that found employees coming to work with symptoms and not bothering to test or isolate an inmate who reported symptoms back in March.
But the experience at Federal Corrections Center Lompoc, in California, was not universal.
The federal prison in Tucson, Arizona, saw no inmates test positive during the inspection period.
One difference was how quickly each facility moved to impose strict conditions.
Lompoc, which had a shortage of staff in both medical and corrections employees, delayed imposing restrictions on their movements at the beginning of the pandemic and was lax about reports of people — both staffers and inmates — with symptoms, investigators said.
As of May 11, more than 75% of inmates tested were shown to have the disease, and of the staffers tested, 60% showed positive.
In Tucson, though, the facility changed operations on March 17 and imposed a shelter-in-place policy on April 1.
It also had empty housing units it could use for quarantine and isolation, and began a mandatory quarantine for incoming inmates.
The inspector general conducted its investigation remotely.
Things have since improved for the inmates. Lompoc reported eight active cases as of mid-July, with a total of four deaths due to the disease since the start of the outbreak. Tucson had no active cases and has not recorded any COVID-19 deaths.
California, where Lompoc is based, was also one of the worst early states for the disease.
By contrast Arizona has become one of the recent hotspots, and that has showed up in the staff infection rate, which was at zero for all of May and most of June, but rose to eight infections by July 13.
Group housing situations like nursing homes and prisons, where new residents are coming in frequently from the outside and where social distancing is difficult, have been at the epicenter of the coronavirus debate.
Activists have pushed for broad releases of inmates, and some local jurisdictions have limited the offenses for which they will pursue charges, saying they want to limit the influx of people.
Courts have also been roped into the debate, with activists winning cases forcing release of some persons.
In Tucson, the prison released 25 inmates to home confinement and 14 others were in the pipeline for release. Sixteen others were considered but denied because they were deemed ineligible or didn’t have a viable release plan that would assure officers they would be confined.
At Lompoc, officials moved more slowly on home confinement decisions, the audit found. The prison said it was having trouble getting agreement with the residential release facility on many of the inmates who were eligible.
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