More than 400 Terminal Island prison inmates test positive for COVID-19

Nearly half of all inmates at the Terminal Island prison in San Pedro have tested positive for the coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, 443 of the federal prison’s 1,055 inmates have the virus, along with 10 staff members. Two inmates have died from COVID-19, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Those numbers amount to a dramatic spike in Terminal Island’s COVID-19 cases. Just 10 days ago, there were only 33 inmates and two employees who’d tested positive.

The sharp increase is at least partially because Terminal Island has partnered with Los Angeles County to do mass testing on more than 1,000 of its inmates, according to a BOP spokesman, who said only 10% of the inmates showed any symptoms for COVID-19 despite 42% testing positive for the coronavirus. The number of positive cases at Terminal Island now is the most in any federal lockup, and more than the all of California’s state prisons combined.

Many of Terminal Island’s inmates could be particularly susceptible to the virus. The low-security facility houses prisoners with specialized medical and mental-health needs.

The outbreak among that vulnerable population has alarmed inmates’ families and drawn condemnation from the local congresswoman.

“This is not acceptable,” tweeted Rep. Nanette Barragan. “It is clear they are not making sure these inmates are protected. The government has a responsibility to protect people in its care, including inmates. Being incarcerated at #TerminalIsland should not be a death sentence. We need answers.”

Relatives of inmates have also become increasingly frustrated by what they say is a lack of information from prison administrators. Because the prison cut-off the use of communal phones and email stations, relatives are also unable to communicate with inmates except through mail. In-person visits have also been suspended in an attempt to slow the outbreak.

Family members who talked to the Post asked not to be identified for fear their relatives would be retaliated against.

“These inmates are people too—they are our loved ones. They are our fathers, sons, brothers,” said one woman who’s been pushing for her father to be released to home confinement.

Her father is in his 60s and has severe health issues like heart problems and diabetes, but she said the family hasn’t heard from him or been able to get info from Terminal Island since he was hospitalized for pneumonia more than a month ago. Now they’re unsure whether he’s sick, still hospitalized or been sent back to the prison.

Another man, whose father has seven months left on a white-collar conspiracy case, said his dad’s deteriorated immune system and other underlying health conditions means he’s unlikely to survive if he gets COVID-19.

“How do you keep these people in there knowing that you’re killing them?” he said. He says his father’s attorneys have been stonewalled while lobbying for release, unable to even get anyone on the phone.

Prison officials admit that social distancing behind bars is difficult, “especially with an open dormitory style setting,” like Terminal Island. But they say they’ve ramped up their efforts by setting up new housing on the prison grounds where 200 inmates can be kept separate from the rest of the population.

To try to stem COVID-19’s spread, Attorney General William Barr has directed federal prisons to release more inmates to home confinement if they’re at-risk for the coronavirus and meet certain safety criteria. Overall, the BOP says it’s done so with 1,751 inmates. But officials declined to say how many have been released from Terminal Island.

“If they were going to release somebody, my father would be one of them,” said the woman who spoke to the Post. Her father is serving a sentence for a fraud case.

The bureau reports a total of 1,313 inmates and 335 staff nationwide have confirmed positive tests for coronavirus. The BOP has a total of about 153,000 inmates and 36,000 staff across the country. There have been 30 federal inmate deaths attributed to coronavirus.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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