The Coronavirus Has Torn Through Terminal Island Prison. Families Want Answers.
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It's obvious now that Terminal Island federal prison in San Pedro was a prime COVID-19 target: Many of its inmates already needed long-term medical care, and it holds over 1,000 inmates in a facility designed to hold just under 800.
So perhaps it's not surprising that nearly 700 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus and eight have died. But a lawsuit claims the prison's mishandling of the situation made things much worse, as do the families of some inmates.
Maureen Hines is one of those relatives. Her son, inmate Russell Ogden, told her in a Mother's Day phone call that a pinched nerve is shooting pain up his arm and his eyesight is failing.
The conversation marked the first time Hines had heard her 46-year-old son's voice since March, when phone privileges were temporarily suspended to prevent the spread of the virus.
When he called, she grabbed her iPod and recorded the call.
"Everything they're doing is wrong," Ogden, who's serving a 15-year sentence for drug possession and credit card fraud, told his mother. "I'm stuck here, and I can't f---ing do nothing."
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During the five minutes allowed for the call, Ogden spoke quickly, rattling off medical care he's not getting.
"The neurologist, the urologist, I'm waiting for an MRI," he said.
Other types of care at the prison are on hold because of the virus.
"My light in my room don't work, it hasn't worked for days," Ogden told Hines, adding that prison guards don't want to go inside the cells.
The five minutes are quickly over -- Ogden is cut off mid-sentence. But Hines told us in a separate call that despite what she had heard, she breathed a sigh of relief: At least her son doesn't have the virus.
Not all inmates are as lucky. While Terminal Island's infection rate is dropping, there have been those eight deaths, and as of mid-May, at least 16 prisoners were fighting COVID-19 hooked to respirators at a nearby hospital.
Still, only a handful have been released to home confinement by the low-security prison, which besides specializing in long-term medical care also serves inmates who need long-term mental health treatment.
Terminal Island and the Federal Bureau of Prisons declined multiple requests for comment for this story.
'I CONTRACTED COVID'
Ron Wilson's cousin Raymond Wadsworth is serving a three-year sentence at Terminal Island for a parole violation.
Wilson summarized a letter he received from the 53-year-old Wadsworth after several weeks of no contact:
"Hey first of all, I'm ok now, but in short, I contracted COVID."
Wilson showed me the letter.
"I got really sick," Wadsworth wrote, "so sick that I had to go to an outside hospital for nine days."
Wilson is upset that he didn't know.
"Someone there should be notifying the next of kin or family and saying, 'Hey, this is the situation, this is what we're doing,'" he said.
"It sort of just shows a complete lack of preparation, planning or even foresight."
Wadsworth also told Wilson in his letters that he wouldn't get into how bad the conditions were at the prison for fear of retaliation.
'I WOULD HEAR INMATES SCREAMING'
Terminal Island sits in the district of U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-LA). On May 12, she toured the facility with prison warden Felicia Ponce and said she was disturbed by what she saw and heard.
Inmates could not practice social distancing and were wearing ill-fitting or incorrectly worn masks, Barragan said.
"While I was there I would hear inmates screaming that were in isolation units, saying, 'Turn on the air! Get us some air! Help me!'" she told reporters after the tour.
In a phone call a few hours later, Barragan said the L.A. County Department of Public Health offered to test all the prison's guards, but Ponce declined the offer. Sixteen guards have tested positive for the virus.
"The warden said that she cannot force the correctional officers to test for COVID-19," Barragán said.
The prison issued a statement last week saying staff who want to get tested can do so through the city of L.A.
In late April, prison staff started efforts to test 100% of inmates. The prison's policy is to retest inmates 10 days after their initial test, though some prisoners' families say that's not happening.
'DELIBERATE INDIFFERENCE' ENDANGERS THOUSANDS
Last weekend, the ACLU, the Prison Law Office and the law firm Bird Marella sued both Terminal Island and the federal prison in Lompoc, where more than a thousand inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
"This crisis need never to have reached such horrific proportions," the ACLU said in a statement. "Through a series of unconscionable delays, blunders, and failures to follow official guidelines, the situation grew unimaginably worse." It argued that even now, prison officials refuse to take "adequate remedial actions" approved by Congress and the Attorney General.
"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," ACLU attorney Peter Bibring said in a statement.
The two prisons' high infection rates are made worse by overcrowding, said Don Specter, co-counsel for the plaintiffs.
"Those two factors combined make it very difficult if not impossible to be safe from infection and also to get appropriate medical care if they are infected," he told us.
"Congress gave prisons broad authority to release low risk offenders into home confinement so that it could reduce overcrowding and save lives," Naeun Rim of Bird Marella said in the statement. "Prison officials' deliberate indifference" has endangered thousands of prisoners' lives, she said.
The complaint alleges that the prisons have violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Bureau of Prisons said it won't comment on pending litigation.
'THEY WEREN'T GIVEN A DEATH SENTENCE'
Inmates' families stage almost weekly protests in front of Terminal Island, waving signs and wearing masks. Some people make the trek from as far away as Utah and Nevada.
At one protest, staff exiting the prison in their cars sped by the protestors, who chanted at them, "We want justice!"
Maureen Hines, the mother of inmate Russell Ogden, held a sign that read, "Inmate Lives Matter," with a photo of Ogden and his young granddaughter.
"They weren't given a death sentence," she said. "You know, they got a parole date. They got family to come home to, and we want to see that happen."
Hines considers herself one of the lucky ones. Many families are still waiting for a phone call.
Julia Paskin contributed to this story.