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Terminal Island prison inmates have worst coronavirus outbreak in federal system

Peple walk along a trail at the beach in Ventura.
Exterior of the Federal Correctional Institute on Terminal Island in the Port of Los Angeles.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly half of the inmates at the federal prison at Terminal Island in San Pedro have tested positive for the coronavirus in what has become the nation’s worst outbreak in a federal penitentiary.

As of Tuesday, 443 of the prison’s 1,055 inmates have the virus, along with 10 staff members. Two inmates have already died of complications related to COVID-19, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

In a week, the outbreak at FCI Terminal Island has quickly escalated as prison officials ramped up testing. Dozens of inmates have been moved into tents in an effort to create social distancing, according to sources. Family members of inmates say the facility has locked down inmates in an effort to stop the spread of the virus in the low-security prison in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles.

Inmates told their families that a military-style medical facility was being erected in the prison yards to cope with the burgeoning number of sick.

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One inmate serving time for a white-collar offense told a family member in a letter that he contracted the coronavirus. “If I don’t make it I’ll see you upstairs, take care of mom, my girl and the kids.”

Inmate Michael Fleming, 59, died of COVID-19 symptoms at a nearby hospital Sunday, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Fleming was serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He tested positive for the coronavirus April 8.

His death follows that of 73-year-old Bradley James Ghilarducci, who died last week. Both had pre-existing medical conditions, officials said. Ghilarducci was serving an eight-year sentence for receiving and distributing child sexual abuse imagery.

Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragan, who represents the area, wrote on Twitter, “This is not acceptable. It is clear they are not making sure these inmates are protected. The government has a responsibility to protect people in its care, including inmates. Being incarcerated at #TerminalIsland should not be a death sentence. We need answers.”

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Sen. Kamala Harris said in a statement, “We are in a moment of crisis that requires leaders to respond quickly and humanely in the interest of public health. The Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice must act immediately to reduce the incarcerated population and to protect those in BOP custody — as well as correctional officers and staff — from this deadly virus. It is imperative that BOP and DOJ provide immediate care and treatment at Terminal Island Prison.”

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the large increase in those testing positive at the Terminal Island prison is a reflection of widespread testing of inmates even without symptoms there.

“The vast majority of them are asymptomatic,” she said, speaking at a news conference Wednesday. Ferrer said that the cases are reported to county public health but the facility has its own team handling treatment.

Nationwide 1,313 inmates and 335 staff have tested positive throughout the Bureau of Prisons system that holds about 153,000 inmates. Of those, 30 inmates have died of COVID-19 symptoms.

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The wife of an inmate, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said the inmate told her “it was really bad and worse than they are saying.” Inmates are locked down and are getting food in sack lunches. On one night, he told her, a dozen inmates were taken to the hospital.

The Bureau of Prisons last week adopted a testing regiment that includes suspected carriers of the coronavirus who do not display common symptoms of infection. The bureau in a statement said testing “asymptomatic inmates will assist the slowing of transmission with isolating those individuals who test positive and quarantining contacts.”


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