Weeks of criticism over the handling of California prison inmates during the coronavirus crisis has now led to a lawsuit. The legal action comes after hundreds of prisoners at both Terminal Island and Lompoc federal prisons tested positive for COVID-19, sparking fears for their safety and the health of people beyond the prison walls.
"They have had months to fix it, and you still have deaths going on, and you are still losing people and you just can’t make sense of it," Jennifer Van Atta, wife of a prisoner, said.
Van Atta is the wife of Maurice Smith, one of the prisoners suing Terminal Island’s leaders. They are asking the prison to keep inmates safe from COVID-19 and release some prisoners early.
Local news from across Southern California
Late last month, the Department of Justice issued a memo outlining who can be released.
"The constitution doesn't allow prison officials to just look the other way on the risks of this deadly disease they have an obligation to provide a safe environment," Peter Bibring, attorney with the ACLU, said.
Bibring filed the case against Terminal Island in Los Angeles County and Lompoc Federal Prison in Santa Barbara County. Both have experienced large outbreaks of COVID-19 among inmates: 681 positive at Terminal Island; 885 positive at Lompoc. Terminal Island has reported 8 COVID-19-related deaths.
Van Atta said, "Every time you hear of somebody passing and you are just like 'Why? What is it going to take to stop this nonsense?' And then, you see the numbers, and you are just like, 'What are they going to do?'"
Among the allegations listed in the lawsuit are unsanitary conditions, failure to provide basic prevention measures such as mask, failure to test for COVID-19 and not providing adequate medical care.
The Bureau of Prisons responded to the I-Team with an email stating, “We decline to comment on pending litigation."
"The majority of folks in there are there because they some kind of medical preexisting condition, many of which make them particularly vulnerable for the effects of COVID," Bibring said regarding Terminal Island.
Bibring says the goal is not to release all inmates--just those near the end of their sentences and those with preexisting medical conditions. Also, Bibring says the goal is to make the prison do a better job of protecting those inside, which helps keep the community safer.
"Because when there is an outbreak in one of these facilities, the guards and other staff that are going in and out of the prison risk infection that can bring the outbreak to the surrounding areas," the ACLU attorney said.
Bibring points out that early release means that the prisoners must stay at home with a loved ones or relatives to finish their sentence. They are not free to go into the community. If they do, they can be sent right back to prison.