The Lompoc federal prison complex’s rising number of coronavirus/COVID-19 cases could hamper Santa Barbara County’s reopening efforts under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s newest plan, prompting local lawmakers to lobby against the inclusion.
The Federal Correctional Complex reported that more than 900 inmates across the site have tested positive for COVID-19, with the bulk of the cases — 792 as of early Friday — at the Federal Correctional Institution, where 100 percent of the population is being tested.
Of the total inmate cases, 82 people incarcerated at the adjacent U.S. Penitentiary have recovered and zero at FCI.
The complex also has 25 employees who have tested positive and nine who have recovered. The site reportedly has 450 employees.
Two inmate deaths at the Lompoc facilities have been attributed to COVID-19.
Gregg Hart, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, spoke Friday about the state’s much more restrictive rules, which say that a county can’t have even one COVID-19 death for 14 days and include the federal prison’s testing numbers among the criteria for reopening.
“Unfortunately, Santa Barbara County cannot meet this threshold. The sad truth is that there has not been a single 14-day span in our county with no COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began,” Hart said.
The thresholds for zero deaths and fewer reported cases will be hard to meet in the coming weeks as testing expands, with three state-run sites and expanded testing at the prisons.
“The COVID-19 outbreak at the Lompoc federal prison complicates our local circumstances even more as we are responsible for the tracking, monitoring and reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths at the prison, but have no authority to solve the problem,” Hart said.
“These new requirements are not what we had been hoping would be announced and not what we had been preparing to meet when the governor announced his six preconditions for opening more businesses,” Hart said.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said the problem isn’t unique to Santa Barbara County, noting that the Bureau of Prisons has several facilities across the state with prison staff being uncooperative and unwilling to share information with local officials.
“Frankly, we are given accountability and no authority, and that is just not acceptable,” Jackson said. “We are certainly looking to the state to reanalyze and to reconsider the requirement that in order for us to reopen we need to be able to incorporate the success or failure, if you will, at the Lompoc federal penitentiary.
“It’s not reasonable to expect or to require that we do so given the fact that there’s just such an utter lack of cooperation by the feds in many different respects.”
She noted that it took weeks for the BOP to expand testing.
In a congregate setting and without prison leaders properly addressing the potential for an outbreak, Jackson said the numbers were “probably inevitable and inexcusable “ but should not be counted against the county.
“I’m hopeful that the governor will recognize the need to remove them from any equation that we’re going to be held to account for,” she said.
Cunningham, who earlier in the pandemic helped craft a plan for an alternate care site at Cal Poly to accept non-inmate cases from Santa Barbara County if federal prison inmates filled hospital beds, said it’s not fair for inmate numbers to be included in the tally.
“The most useful thing I think I can do for the community right now is to continue to pressure the governor’s office and the California Department of Public Health to strip those numbers out of our counts,” said Cunningham, a Republican whose district includes the Lompoc and Santa Maria valleys plus San Luis Obispo County. “It’s just really, really unfair to me. The federal prison authority is not exactly transparent, so it would be kind of hard to get information out of them.”
Cunningham also noted that the issue could be a concern in San Luis Obispo County, home to the state-operated California Men’s Colony.
SLO County sent in a strike force to help test inmates and ensure that proper procedures were in place, Cunningham said. As of Friday, California Men’s Colony reported that 11 inmates and two employees had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I couldn’t believe it when I found out they were going to count (prison cases),” he said. “SLO County came in and bailed out the state … and then another division of the state government is now using that against us as we’re trying to meet the reopening criteria, which they keep moving the goal posts on all week. It’s been quite frustrating.”