USA: 'people are sick all around me', inside the coronavirus catastrophe in California prisons

More than 3,200 prisoners in California have contracted Covid-19 and at least 16 inmates have died, in a public health catastrophe that advocates say was both predictable and preventable.

Inmates and advocates told the Guardian that at six prisons and jails with rapidly escalating outbreaks, basic protocols to prevent the virus from spreading are being ignored, and that they fear imminent mass fatalities and hospitalizations. Interviews with prisoners, their families and attorneys, along with internal records, reveal that:

  • Some prisoners sick with coronavirus have complained that they aren’t getting enough food and water while quarantined, and that they don’t have access to doctors, temperature checks, basic medicine, phone calls, regular showers, outdoor time or sanitary supplies.
  • Inmates have reported being reprimanded for wearing face coverings. At least one inmate was formally disciplined for trying to use bleach to help clean a prison.
  • In one facility, prisoners assigned to make masks for others allegedly contracted Covid-19 in the process.
  • Some prisoners with Covid-19 have been unable to talk to loved ones, who have been left uncertain if their relatives are still alive.

Nationwide, more than 25,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19 inside state and federal prisons, and at least 57 federal prisoners have died since that start of the pandemic. However, the true scope of the crisis is unknown given testing gaps, opaque reporting and a lack of data on county jails.

California has released 3,500 prisoners early because of coronavirus, and reduced the population in its daily jails. But the state’s prison system remains one of the largest in the world, and is still dangerously overcrowded. April Harris, 44, was recently placed in a roughly 10ft by 8ft cell with no windows at the California Institution for Women (CIW), located east of Los Angeles, after she contracted Covid-19.

More than 100 inmates at the facility have tested positive for the virus. “The minute I toughen up and convince myself that everything will be OK, I’ll hear crying or fear coming through the walls from other rooms,” Harris told the Guardian through a prison email service last week. “I feel like we are being punished.”

Experts warn that the rising rates of infections among California inmates could impede broader efforts to reopen the state, given the number of people employed by the prison system, the movement of prisoners and the scale of the outbreaks. The state’s inability to protect prisoners, they warn, foreshadows how the US mass incarceration crisis will exacerbate America’s botched coronavirus containment.

Getting Covid-19 inside: ‘Please help us’

The prisons hardest hit are in southern California, the state’s major Covid-19 hotspot, and are generally located in remote communities outside of Los Angeles, with relatively limited healthcare capacities.

There are large outbreaks in two federal prisons – Lompoc, just north of Santa Barbara, where 1,078 prisoners have tested positive, and Terminal Island, in south LA county, where 686 prisoners have tested positive and eight have died.

Just east of LA, two adjacent state prisons also have major outbreaks – there have been 593 Covid-19 cases inside the California Institution for Men (CIM) and 105 in CIW, the women’s prison. In the surrounding region, 660 inmates in LA county jail have tested positive.

California prisons with major outbreaks

The high infection rates have hit facilities where hundreds live in close quarters, unable to maintain distance while sharing bathrooms and sometimes sleeping in rows of bunkbeds. Prisoners who have long complained of unsanitary conditions and inadequate healthcare say the staff have failed to minimize the risks of Covid-19 transmission and ignored their medical needs and requests.

As Covid-19 spread inside Terminal Island, Lance Wilson, a 35-year-old prisoner, sent his brother Jacque increasingly distressed messages in short letters, their only mode of communicating outside of infrequent five-minute calls.

18 April: “We are confined in these units and people are sick. All they are doing is spreading it to everyone.”

21 April: “Hey bro – Things are getting so bad here. They are setting us up for a death sentence. Please help if you can. I know there is so many more people that have it but they are not testing us.”

29 April: “There is 570 inmates that have tested positive. People are sick all around me. The likelihood of becoming infected is enormous.”

1 May: “I got my results back from the Covid-19 test and it came back positive. I have been having migraine headaches and body chills.”

5 May: “Another inmate died. They don’t know what to do. They just keep moving people.”

“To get that letter and not be able to talk to him, to not know if he is dead, the helplessness and hopelessness is so hard,” Jacque told the Guardian.

Lance, serving time for a non-violent drug offense, has asthma and was diagnosed with hypertension while in prison, said Jacque, who works as a public defender in San Francisco and has tried numerous legal efforts to get his brother released in recent weeks, so far without success.

At Terminal Island, a low-security facility that incarcerates people with medical and mental health conditions, authorities have failed to isolate sick people or allow for distancing and have declined to allow home confinement for eligible prisoners, according to an ACLU lawsuit, which alleges “unconscionable delays, blunders, and failures”.

Lance’s 85-year-old father, a Vietnam war veteran, collapsed in a panic attack after reading his son’s letters from prison, Jacque said: “He’s saying, ‘Why me? Why are they trying to kill my kids? I fought for my country.’ To see my dad on the floor, you never forget that shit, never. My brother got Covid and they’re not fucking doing anything.

“I’m trying to save my brother’s life. When Lance went into jail, he was healthy, and now he may not ever come out.”

Lance’s condition hasn’t worsened, as far as Jacque knows, but he hasn’t heard from him in days and he has not seen a doctor.

The US Bureau of Prisons, which oversees Terminal Island, declined to comment on Lance’s case or the ACLU complaint, but said the facility has implemented “aggressive testing and an effective quarantine strategy” and has begun to restore inmate telephone calls.

The prisoners fighting to survive: ‘You get retaliation’

At CIW, the state women’s prison, guards refused to wear masks when Covid-19 first broke out, and women would get threatened with write-ups for wearing their own face coverings, according to Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, who is in regular contact with CIW inmates.

Ultimately, the prison had some inmates make masks for others, but several women at the shop got Covid-19 while making the coverings, and probably spread the virus to their units, Lenz said. “We’ve watched in real time as they create the conditions for outbreaks,” she added.

In early April, inmates at the facility were already so concerned about infections that two women attempted to disinfect some surfaces with diluted bleach on their own. Corene De La Cruz, a 41-year-old inmate, held a prison job assisting with transportation of other inmates, and without access to masks, gloves or other protections she was fearful of bringing Covid-19 back to her unit, according to Beatrice Bayardo, De La Cruz’s mother.

So De La Cruz and another co-worker took the limited bleach that was available to them in soda bottles, to wipe down some areas in the unit.

When staff found out, officers tore up her cell searching for bottles, her mother said. The officers accused her of “theft of state property”, classifying the “rules violation” as a possible “serious” felony, records show. Amid the escalating pandemic inside, De La Cruz had to attend a hearing on the charge, which was ultimately dropped, her mother said.

“She just wanted to wipe down the phones and the shower,” said Bayardo, 57. “My daughter tells me: ‘We are forgotten in here and no one can speak up.’ If you do, you get retaliated against.”

De La Cruz has had repeated contact with Covid-positive prisoners, her mother said, but it’s unclear if she’s been infected. Her daughter has described chaotic scenes as more of the facility has gone into lockdown: “People have been screaming, let us out.”

The lockdowns mean Bayardo rarely hears from her daughter any more. On Mother’s Day, De La Cruz was able to record a video for her family through the prison communication system. In it, it appears she has been crying: “Just wanted to let you guys know that I love you guys, I miss you guys and there’s never a day that passes that I don’t think of you guys. I know times are hard right now, but just look around, look where I’m at, it could be worse.”

Bayardo struggled to watch it, thinking, “Is this the last time I’m going to see her?”

Dana Simas, a California prisons spokesperson, said the disciplinary process against De La Cruz was ongoing and that CIW was providing “extra cleaning supplies to allow them to keep their living area clean”. She added, “We are not imposing disciplinary actions if those supplies were obtained properly.”

She said all CIW prisoners have access to healthcare services and medication and that staff make “multiple rounds daily” and conduct screenings to identify people with new symptoms. Across state prisons, inmates and staff are now required to use reusable cloth masks, she said, adding that the allegation of threats for wearing masks was “hearsay”.

April Harris, the CIW inmate with coronavirus, said she wishes staff would provide medicine, or allow her to purchase vitamin C and cough drops from the commissary. She said she’s even struggling to stay properly hydrated while battling the virus: “The water is coming out brown from our faucets.” She gets one cup of ice a day, she said, and added that she hadn’t seen daylight in days.

The one bright moment since her positive test was when a nurse took her vitals and said a prayer for her: “I felt human for a second.”

Eventually, her messages to the Guardian stopped coming. An advocate later learned she had been moved again, to a unit with no access to communication.

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