A week ago, Terminal Island federal prison in San Pedro, California, had the biggest known coronavirus outbreak in the federal penal system. More than 700 inmates ― nearly 70% of the low-security facility’s population ― had tested positive for COVID-19.
But a proactive testing and segregation strategy that Bureau of Prisons officials and the Los Angeles Department of Public Health implemented late last month has seemingly produced a rapid reduction in the cases. Faced with the health crisis, officials took dramatic steps ― a lockdown of the facility, mandated testing of all prisoners, and separating inmates by their COVID-19 status.
After what the bureau termed an “aggressive testing and quarantine mitigation strategy,” more than 567 inmates have recovered, while 130 remain infected. Eight inmates have died in the pandemic.
Democratic Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, whose district includes the prison, is one of the few outsiders to visit Terminal Island since the lockdown began. In an interview with HuffPost after her visit this week, Barragán she was concerned about the living conditions for inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“There were like 70 inmates in this small room where there’s just bunk beds,” she said. “There really is no way to maintain six feet of social, physical distancing that we’re being asked to do.
Barragán said she had difficulty communicating with many of the prisoners under the tour’s conditions, but that many were yelling out to the warden asking for air conditioning and to be allowed to talk to their families. Terminal Island inmates have only recently been able to communicate with their families in five-minute phone calls, according to the BOP.
Barragán described touring the facility with the warden while wearing extensive personal protective equipment as she looked upon inmates living in the close quarters amid the pandemic with only the bare minimum protective equipment.
“All they have is a little cloth mask,” she said. “We’re in a full gown, we’re in a full N-95 mask that seals on your face… We have a face shield on. We were fully loaded with protection, and you can only imagine what they felt like when we walked in and they’ve got nothing, and their families can’t give them anything.”
Barragán has advocated releasing more Terminal Island prisoners to home confinement, especially because the vast majority of inmates there require only low-security measures. So far, only a handful of Terminal Island prisoners have been approved for home confinement.
“These inmates have nowhere to go. They certainly didn’t bring it from the outside,” Barragán said. “The people who are exposing them are really people who are coming in and out, like staff and officers.”