Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex
The Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex has been Santa Barbara County’s biggest hotspot of coronavirus infections, with nearly 900 inmates having tested positive for the disease. (Scott Sheahen / KEYT News photo)

A class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of inmates at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex, claiming the widespread COVID-19 outbreak represents not only a medical and humanitarian crisis, but also violates constitutional rights against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, the Prison Law Office in San Quentin and the Los Angeles law firm of Bird, Marella P.C recently filed class-action lawsuits regarding situations at the Lompoc prison complex and Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in San Pedro.

Attorneys accused the federal Bureau of Prisons of “mismanaging one of the worst public health catastrophes related to COVID-19 anywhere in the country.”

The lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California noted that after “a series of unconscionable delays, blunders and failures to follow official guidelines, the situation grew unimaginably worse.”

“While the rest of California took extraordinary measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, the Bureau of Prisons failed to take preventive measures as basic as isolating sick prisoners, allowing social distancing or providing enough soap,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.

“Their deliberate indifference to the risk of disease violates the Constitution, and puts both those in prison and the surrounding community at risk.”

Bureau of Prisons officials have not commented on the lawsuit, but the agency’s attorneys are expected to file a response in the coming weeks.

As of Sunday, the bureau reported that 885 inmates tested positive with 44 recovered at the Lompoc Federal Correction Institution. That means roughly 96 percent of the inmates at the FCI tested positive.

After a stall in either testing or reporting for the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc, the numbers again started rising with 57 inmates positive and 102 recovered.

Two inmate deaths at the Lompoc complex have been attributed to COVID-19.

Lompoc prison protest

Family members with inmates incarcerated at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex protest conditions inside the prison Sunday. (Scott Sheahen / KEYT News photo)

Lompoc includes two prisons plus satellite camps, housing nearly 2,700 male inmates across the complex.

The Lompoc facilities were designed to hold 2,058 inmates, putting the current population at 130 percent of capacity.

The lawsuit named as defendants/respondents Michael Carvajal, assistant director of the Correctional Programs Division, and Lompoc Warden Louis Milusnic — although it’s not clear he remains in that capacity. Criticism from community leaders about the outbreak have included a high personnel turnover among top leadership at Lompoc’s prison complex.

Plaintiffs, on behalf of their fellow inmates, include five named defendants who are incarcerated across the complex.

BOP officials at the local and national levels “have demonstrated that they will not take the measures necessary to prevent the coronavirus from converting more prison sentences into death sentences without court intervention,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit notes ill inmates have received inadequate or no care, despite being obviously sick.

The filing states that one inmate was placed in solitary confinement and then transferred to an unsanitary housing unit with other COVID-19 patients.

“He languished there without treatment, then was put back into the general population without being re-tested,” the suit says.

Inmates just months away from being freed instead remain imprisoned despite federal laws allowing compassionate releases to home confinement in some circumstances, including those deemed medically vulnerable.

“The Constitution requires that prison officials provide a safe environment for people in their custody,” said Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. “Not only are these two prisons extremely dangerous, but they confine people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.”

BOP leaders announced plans for universal testing at the FCI, followed by a spike in numbers officials said mostly involved asymptomatic patients.

Plans to conduct mass testing at the USP, where the outbreak began, also were to be implemented, BOP public affairs officials told Noozhawk last week.

“Respondents and their ineffectual and unnecessarily cruel policy of isolating positive cases in solitary confinement and unsanitary makeshift living spaces has completely failed to stop or even slow the spread of the virus,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Having failed to prevent the outbreak, respondents cannot now be trusted to provide those who have tested positive with proper medical treatment or to protect those who remain uninfected from infection.”

According to the lawsuit, inmates have received only one mask to wear, and those infected were either ignored or moved into a security housing unit, or SHU, typically used for discipline.

Once in the SHU, they often did not receive medical attention for days at a time, deterring other inmates from reporting symptoms, the suit says

“Afterward, as the number of positive cases grew, prison authorities began to isolate the infected in a variety of temporary housing units, such as dormitories that had previously been closed due to mold contamination, and hastily converted warehouses,” the lawsuit says, adding that prisoners who had tested positive were moved from minimum-and-low security facilities with communal dormitories to cells at USP Lompoc’s medium-security facility.

Additionally, the class-action lawsuit notes that prison authorities “display a chilling indifference toward those affected by COVID-19.”

In the lawsuit, attorneys are asking that a federal judge declare that the Lompoc prison is violating the Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment with respect to inmates named and not named in the legal action.

Lawsuits for Lompoc and Terminal Island also seek release of inmates who have vulnerable medical conditions that could lead to serious illness or death from COVID-19 infections, noting an exception being anyone who poses serious flight risks or danger to others.

Attorneys asked the judge to order “a highly expedited process — for completion within no more than 48 hours.”

Reducing prison population would be a key step to stemming the outbreak since it would allow for social distancing and better access to medical care, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also calls for the BOP to provide hand soap and paper towels, and access to hand sanitizer, daily showers and daily clean laundry, plus other measures deemed key for preventing COVID-19.

Inmates also should be assured they will not face retaliation for reporting COVID-19 symptoms, should receive clean masks daily and get medical attention within an hour of request, the lawsuit contends.

Scroll down to read the complaint filed in U.S. District Court. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

ACLU Class Action Case File…