As the coronavirus outbreak at the Lompoc federal prison complex grows ever more dire, frantic family members desperate for information and help have contacted Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gregg Hart and other local officials to no avail.
“They are very concerned about their loved ones’ medical situation and they have not been able to communicate and learn the status of that,” said Hart, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors and the board’s Second District representative. “And that is very disturbing to them and to me.
“Every single man who’s in that prison is a father, a son, a brother or a grandfather, and they have loving families at home that are very concerned about them,” he added. “We want to know what’s going on in prison and we have not been able to get adequate answers.”
Osborne cited a similar experience.
“I can’t tell you the number of emails I get from family members right now begging me,” she told Noozhawk, which also has received an avalanche of similar requests from inmate families.
“I get emails, phone calls and letters begging me to get their sibling, husband, son released …”
Local officials’ hands are tied since it’s a federal facility, but they share the frustration.
The Rev. Jane Quandt, pastor of Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ in Vandenberg Village, has become the listening ear and guide encouraging relatives to contact the ACLU and trying to build a coalition to address the situation.
“Something’s got to be done,” she said.
The prison’s quashing of phone and email communications during the COVID-19 outbreak has heightened worries of family members.
“It’s so sad,” Quandt said. “They’re terrified. They’re very scared.”
Inmates instead, are left to write letters, although they have limited access to stamps. Letters also have been returned to family members without explanation.
“Some letters are getting through but not many,” Quandt said.
She also has been told that soap is being rationed.
“I mean this is ridiculous,” she added.
As the numbers grow, Quandt said she believes faith leaders have a responsibility to speak up and help out.
“That’s our role — to be moral first responders,” she said. “This is not right. These are people. This is somebody’s son, somebody’s father.”
As of Sunday, the Bureau of Prisons reported 842 positive inmate coronavirus cases at the Federal Correctional Institution plus 20 who have recovered, meaning the outbreak infected 74 percent of the prison’s population.
At the U.S. Penitentiary, there are 21 inmates with positive cases and 93 recovered among the population of 1,542 inmates at the medium-security and satellite prison camps.
The total number of COVID-19 patients at Lompoc amount to 24 percent of the COVID-19 cases for the entire Bureau of Prisons system.
While family members fight for the compassionate release of vulnerable loved ones or just seek updates on their health and want to shed light upon the conditions behind bars, many told Noozhawk that they fear retribution if their names are disclosed.
The wife of a first-time offender who had only recently reported to prison before the pandemic said she is frustrated. She had hoped he could be released to home confinement or even freed for now and ordered to return after the outbreak passes.
Inmates recently have been told they will get one 15-minute phone call a week since prison officials expect the lockdown may extend to August.
“I mean this is so crazy,” one inmate’s wife said, adding she suspects limited phone privileges might be an attempt to stop inmates from spreading the word about their situation inside the razor-wire topped fences.
While Attorney General William Barr has spelled out rules for releasing at-risk inmates to home confinement, Lompoc inmates allegedly have been told that attorney requests and judicial orders will be placed in their files.
“They are being told that no one is going to leave,” the woman told Noozhawk.
She said her husband related that a prison staff member claimed the COVID-19 numbers being released to the public were not accurate.
“One of them disclosed to an inmate it is a lot worse than the prison wants the public to know,” she said.
“My husband said there’s so much coughing, constantly that’s all your hear in there. Just coughing. And he said at night it’s worse.”
Another woman revealed that her incarcerated brother wrote about being extremely ill, but not getting medical care for days.
Later, his family received a letter from a cellmate who said her brother’s lack of medical care prompted other inmates to take action and bang their cell doors until he received medical attention.
In a second letter, the cellmate said her brother eventually was taken to a hospital, but that was later denied by prison staff when she called to check on him.
“Written by my brother’s cellmate in his own words, they are scare(d) for their lives,” she said.
“They are asking for us, the families, to get their word out. They deserve to be given all the medical attention they need. We as families deserve to know how they are. We don’t know anything about my brother.”
Grass Valley resident Chris Enss said her incarcerated brother, Rick Enss, has struggled to get needed medication and dental care, both unrelated to the outbreak.
“Lompoc isn’t a prison, it’s a Russian gulag complete with officials who gladly tell the inmates they’re rooting for their death,” said Enss, a New York Times best-selling author and screenwriter.
Like other inmate family members, she called the federal prison seeking information about her brother, a former police officer who was convicted of two child pornography charges in 2006. Rick Enss, 56, suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
“I tried to find out how my brother was doing and was told if I was so concerned to contact the county morgue,” Enss said.
Hearing about Enss’ experience plus seeing cold-hearted responses on social media posts shrugging off concerns about inmate health disturbs Quandt, whose church sits a short distance from the prisons.
“Even if they don’t have a lot of time left, they weren’t sent there to die,” she said.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.