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Officials defend methods used in Lompoc prison's response to COVID-19
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Officials defend methods used in Lompoc prison's response to COVID-19

Report found shortcomings including communication, staffing and leadership

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Officials took "significant measures" to protect inmates and the public while containing an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Federal Correctional Complex Lompoc, according to a Bureau of Prisons spokesman, despite criticism contained in a recent Inspector General's report

The report, released Thursday, found that among other things, ineffective screening for inmates and staff, preexisting staff shortages and lack of permanent leadership may have led to deficiencies in the prison's response to the outbreak.

Additionally, the prison's ability to release inmates considered at risk for the coronavirus in order to limit its spread was extremely limited, the report said.

The report was based on remote inspections conducted between April 23 and May 1 in response to the rising cases of coronavirus, which infected at least 53 staff members, 912 inmates, and killed four inmates. At one point the prison complex had among the highest rates of infection in the federal prison system. 

Part of the prison's response to the outbreak was placing inmates on 24-hour lockdown for an unspecified period of time starting on April 20, according to the report, a practice which was criticized for its potential to create mental health issues among inmates.

"Inmates were confined to their cells for 24 hours a day without recreation, which is more restrictive than conventional Special Housing Unit placement," the report said. "Such restrictions can raise significant mental health issues." 

Bureau of Prisons officials, along with other agencies, began coordinating their coronavirus response in January, two months before the pandemic began and the first case was detected inside the prison, according to BOP spokesman Emery Nelson. 

"The Bureau, like the rest of the world, has had to be flexible and adapt to new professional guidance as it was published, and follow the evidence-based practices as they have evolved," Nelson said.

The report went on to say that limited testing ability and confusing communication due to lack of permanent leadership led to a failure to identify COVID-19 symptoms early on at the prison and contributed to the outbreak.

Lompoc prison began screening staff on March 16 and a prison staff member was the first to test positive for COVID-19 on March 27.

Two staff members were initially overlooked in the prison's screening process, including one staff member who continued working for seven days after experiencing symptoms, which they didn't think were related to COVID-19. The staff member later tested positive for coronavirus in early April, according to the report.  

The prison also cycled through three acting wardens over the course of the prison's outbreak, to which the Inspector General attributed a lack of communication protocols to inform staff about the virus' spread, according to the report. 

The first inmate at the prison to test positive for COVID-19 experienced symptoms on March 22, but wasn't admitted to a hospital until March 26, according to the report. Positive test results were returned on March 30. 

"The inmate appeared to be experiencing gall bladder issues, which was not a known COVID-related symptom at that time," Nelson said, in defense of the response.

Staff shortages at the prison may have limited the ability to test for COVID-19 and stop its spread within the facility, according to the report, which added that the shortage also caused officials to delay restricting inmate movements for 15 days after direction from the BOP on March 31. 

In response, the Bureau deployed 40 additional medical staff and 131 prison staff from other institutions starting on March 31, Nelson said. 

Following memoranda issued by Attorney General William Barr to release at-risk inmates to home confinement in order to facilitate social distancing and other guidelines, the Bureau identified 509 Lompoc inmates who qualified, although only eight were released according to the report. 

On July 14, a federal court set a timeline and ordered the prison to begin the process of identifying and releasing at-risk inmates. By July 23, the BOP identified at least 72 inmates whose home confinement applications have been reviewed and sent to a committee for determination, while an additional 655 applications have yet to be reviewed, according to court filings. 

The full report can be viewed at oig.justice.gov. 

Coronavirus Series: Local impact and reaction to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

We are working hard to get answers about the impact and reaction to the coronavirus in Santa Barbara County, this is a collection of those stories. Do you have a question about coronavirus in Santa Barbara County? Post them to our Facebook page, or email MCooley@SantaMariaTimes.com.  You can support the work of local journalists working hard in your hometown by signing up for a News+ Membership online

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Although the percentage of positive test results — the other metric being monitored by the state — has dropped into the orange, or “moderate,” tier, the new case rate still exceeds the threshold set by the state for moving the county into the red, according to a report delivered Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors.

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The following is taken from the Lompoc Police Department's calls-for-service log and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office daily arrest log. Those appearing as "arrested" are only suspected of the crime indicated but are presumed innocent.

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The following is taken from the Lompoc Police Department's calls-for-service log and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office daily arrest log. Those appearing as "arrested" are only suspected of the crime indicated but are presumed innocent.

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