Staff shortages, screening flaws among issues that led to massive COVID outbreak
An already short amount of staff was one of the biggest challenges the federal prison in Lompoc faced in the face of COVID-19 and one of the chief reasons the facility was hit hard by an outbreak, according to a report the Office of the Inspector General published on Thursday.
The report is one of two the OIG released examining whether federal prisons complied with Department of Justice policies and Bureau of Prisons directives to prevent and manage the spread of COVID-19 through their facilities. The other report details the response of the Federal Correctional Complex in Tucson, Arizona, which Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz described as a “very different” situation compared to the Lompoc prison in a video the OIG posted to Twitter.
“At FCC Tucson, no inmates and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19 during the period of our inspection in early June. By mid July, 11 staff members had tested positive,” Mr. Horowitz said.
By contrast, the inspector general said 32 staff members of the Lompoc prison tested positive for COVID-19 as of early May and that by mid-July, 1,000 inmates had tested positive and four had died from the virus. While the Tucson prison took early precautionary measures such as limiting staff movement and implementing a 14-day quarantine for incoming inmates before the BOP made it a requirement, FCC Lompoc delayed implementing restrictions on staff movement for 15 days due to staff shortages, Mr. Horowitz said.
According to the report on the Lompoc prison, the BOP directed prison wardens “‘to immediately implement modified operations to maximize social distancing in [BOP] facilities’ to the extent practicable” on March 13 and supplemented this on March 31 with instructions to limit staff movement to assigned department areas whenever feasible. However, the complex’s acting warden didn’t issue a memorandum to prison staff enacting this requirement until April 14 because the prison didn’t have enough staff members to fill all of its mandatory posts.
In response, the BOP sent temporary staff from other federal correctional institutions to help the Lompoc prison with security, clinical care, and modifying the facility to accommodate a mobile hospital.
Other findings in the report that explain why COVID-19 hit the Lompoc prison hard include flaws in the initial COVID-19 screening process, failing to test an inmate who had experienced symptoms, a shortage in personal protective equipment, and a limited ability to use home confinement as a response method.
FCC Lompoc started screening staff members with potential COVID-19 risk factors on Feb. 29. On March 13, the prison received BOP instructions to have its entire staff undergo “enhanced screening” that included “self-reporting and temperature checks.”
Prison staff members were initially required to complete a form and get their temperatures checked. Subsequent screenings included temperature checks and a verbal screening, in which staff was asked if they experienced any symptoms. If they answered yes to any of the symptom questions or had a fever, they were required to fill out a new screening form.
Because the prison’s screening process didn’t detect two staff members who came to work in late March with COVID-19 systems, the OIG determined that FCC Lompoc’s initial screenings were “not fully effective.” One of these staff members ended up testing positive for COVID-19 in early April and had worked at the prison for a week between experiencing his first symptoms and getting his positive test result.
On March 22, an inmate informed FCC Lompoc staff that he had been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Though the inmate’s medical records indicate that over the next four days he had experienced fatigue, fever, and chills before getting admitted to the hospital, the prison didn’t suspect him of contracting the coronavirus because he hadn’t been in contact with anyone who had it. The inmate was confirmed to have had COVID-19 on March 30.
“Based on the BOP already having identified Lompoc as residing in an area of sustained community transmission… we believe that Lompoc should have taken greater precautions to isolate an inmate with an indeterminate illness that could have been related to COVID-19,” the report read.
Though the Lompoc prison complied with the BOP’s April 6 directive for institutions to hand out surgical masks to all staff and inmates on the same date it was issued, this was 11 days after an inmate was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and 10 days after the first prison staff member tested positive for the virus. Lompoc officials said that the prison had an adequate amount of personal protective equipment, but 70% of prison staff who responded to an OIG survey said that more PPE for staff was an immediate need. Some 46% of staff said inmates needed more PPE.
In order to reduce the federal prison population amid the pandemic, the BOP started transferring inmates to home confinement in early April. Later that month, the bureau expanded this practice to cover inmates beyond just those who were elderly or at high risk of COVID-19.
Between early April and mid-May, the Lompoc prison received nine rosters of 509 inmates who were potentially eligible for parole from the BOP’s Central Office and went through the required review process to determine whether an individual met the BOP’s criteria for transfer to home confinement.
This review process, as well as a 14-day prerelease quarantine period that inmates had to undergo, meant it took three weeks between the BOP Central Office identifying an inmate who could be transferred to actually transferring that inmate to home confinement. This lengthy process meant that by May 13, more than 900 inmates at the Lompoc prison had contracted COVID-19, while only eight inmates had been transferred to home confinement.