More than half the inmates at a federal prison in Los Angeles have tested positive for the coronavirus and two of them have died in what is believed to be the worst outbreak among the system’s prisons.
The Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island on Wednesday reported that 570 of its 1,055 inmates have tested positive for the virus, according to a statement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“Only 10% of those tested are exhibiting outward objective symptoms, such as coughing and fever,” the agency said.
This mirrors what the health department has found in other institutional settings where all residents and staff were tested, regardless of whether they were showing symptoms of the respiratory illness.
L.A. County’s health department started testing all inmates at the facility one week ago as part of a countywide effort to curb the spread of the virus in settings where people are clustered close together.
The county’s health director announced last week that the majority of people who tested positive at several different facilities were asymptomatic.
Ten staff members at Terminal Island have also tested positive for the virus, the agency said.
“Social distancing inside a prison is difficult to achieve, especially with an open dormitory style setting,” Federal Bureau of Prisons’ statement read.
The agency said they’ve restricted inmates’ use of phones and email stations to limit the spread of the virus.
This has meant that families learning of the outbreak haven’t been able to check on loved ones being held at the facility.
“It’s mind blowing,” said Barbara Pritchett whose brother is an inmate at the facility. “Because we haven’t heard from our loved ones…and it’s been maybe two weeks.”
Pritchett said people need to know if their sons, brothers or husbands have been infected.
“I know everybody is running in circles but [there should be] at least some kind of way to give communication and light to the families,” she said. “That’s the thing. We don’t know who’s OK and who’s not OK.”
The prison agency defended the decision Wednesday and urged families to correspond by mailing letters through the U.S. Postal Service.
“While this is unpopular with inmates and their family, this action is being taken to prevent transmission of the virus by multiple people touching keyboards and telephone handsets,” the agency said. “FCI Terminal Island will continue to evaluate this approach and will make these communication avenues available as soon as possible.”
Officials said they have also tried to stem the spread of the respiratory illness at the facility by adding over 200 beds in “alternative housing” to create space. The prison’s industry factory and visiting room was also repurposed to house inmates.
Across the country, there are 1,534 federal inmates and 343 staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 31 federal inmate deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.