WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A shortage of medical supplies and flaws in health screening processes contributed to a COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison in California that sickened more than 1,000 inmates and 23 prison staff, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog has found.
In a report released on Thursday, Inspector General Michael Horowitz said staff at the Federal Correctional Complex Lompoc in Santa Barbara who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus still went to work, and the prison was slow to release inmates into home confinement.
“Lompoc’s initial COVID-19 screening process was not fully effective. We identified two staff members who came to work in late March after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and whose symptoms were not detected in the screening process,” the report says.
“Lompoc staff did not seek to test or isolate an inmate who reported on March 22 that he began having COVID-19 like symptoms 2 days earlier.”
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said the findings on Lompoc need to be taken in a proper context of what was happening at the time, and noted the BOP has also since “made a concerted effort to speed up” home confinement releases from Lompoc.
“The Bureau was following CDC guidelines at that time,” BOP spokesman Justin Long said in a statement.
“Proactively distributing face coverings, was not a proven, evidence-based strategy at a time when PPE resources were extremely limited across the country and face coverings were being used as contingency PPE.”
The BOP has faced criticism for its slow response to the global pandemic, both from the union that represents its staff and from families of prisoners.
Union officials have repeatedly accused the BOP of not having enough protective gear, not providing adequate testing and failing to limit the movement of inmates between facilities to prevent the virus from spreading.
The BOP has also faced scrutiny for changing its rules for determining which non-violent federal inmates could qualify for release into home confinement.
Horowitz contrasted Lompoc’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with another federal prison - the Federal Correctional Complex in Tucson, Arizona - which his office found has had far fewer cases of COVID-19.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Diane Craft