Nearly all inmates at Lompoc FCI tested positive for coronavirus, most asymptomatic

This image shows an acute care room at the Hospital Care Unit in the Lompoc federal prison complex. 

A Los Angeles federal judge has appointed an epidemiologist to inspect a Lompoc federal prison facility at the center of a class-action lawsuit and massive COVID-19 outbreak that infected most of its inmates. 

U.S. District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall named Dr. Homer Venters to document the Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution's coronavirus response during a site visit in September, according to court records. 

During Venters' visit, which is scheduled to take place on Sept. 1 and 2, he will be allowed to walk through the FCI, including housing units and clinical space, take pictures and interview staff at his request. 

Additionally, Venters will be allowed to request documentation and interview inmates, with their permission. Venters will include his findings in a report no later than Sept. 30, according to court records. 

Venters was the former chief medical officer for Rikers Island Jail who helped lead efforts to contain an outbreak of the swine flu inside New York City's jails in 2009 and is known for his critical take on prison health care. 

"COVID-19 will remind us of a central hypocrisy in our approach to health behind bars," Venters wrote in an op-ed for the The Hill in February. "We've built the world's largest collection of jails and prisons, and kept the health services in these places remarkably separate from the rest of our national health systems."

The site visit was agreed upon by both the defendants and plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit filed May 16 by ACLU attorneys on behalf of Lompoc prison inmates suing Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal and acting warden Louis Milusnic over mishandling of the outbreak's response. 

The complex experienced one of the country's largest federal prison outbreaks of the coronavirus, infecting more than 1,000 inmates and staff at its peak in May, including most of the inmates at the FCI, which had more than 900 inmates at the time, according to an inspector general report

At least four inmates died from the disease, according to prison officials. 

Consuelo on July 14 ordered the prison to begin a process, with deadlines, of releasing inmates who are vulnerable to the coronavirus and eligible to be released to home confinement as a measure to curb the disease's spread. 

Additionally, prior to the judge's ruling, Attorney General Bill Barr issued memorandums in March and April directing officials to authorize home confinement for at-risk federal inmates.

Following the court's order, prison officials referred 1,207 applications to the BOP's Correctional Programs Division for assessment. Of those, 537 were denied release, according to court records filed Aug. 18. 

Staff at Lompoc FCC had already referred several inmates to halfway houses before they could be reviewed for release to home confinement, according to David Brewer, a BOP administrator. 

"The BOP has considered inmates for home confinement at the end of their term of imprisonment [since Sept. 6, 1995]," Brewer said. 

Factors that would make an inmate ineligible for release include an assessment score indicating a high risk for re-offending and some sex-related convictions, according to court records.