Michael Williams – December 23, 2020
A fast-moving coronavirus outbreak at FCI Dublin, a federal women’s prison in Alameda County, has infected more than 20% of the prison’s population, according to data released Wednesday.
The mass spread of the virus in jails and prisons around the country, often following the transfers of inmates, has fueled anger from incarcerated people and the facilities’ staffs. At FCI Dublin, the outbreak is raising concerns among lawyers and advocates about inmate safety there and questions about whether authorities did enough to try to control the virus.
The prison reported 185 infections out of the 880 women incarcerated there Wednesday, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. More than 200 additional women at the low-security prison were awaiting test results.
In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, said all of the agency’s prisons, including FCI Dublin, have taken steps to reduce inmate movement and crowding, and to maximize social distancing.
“We remain deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in,” spokesman Justin Long said. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”
The status of those infected with the virus is unclear. The Alameda County Public Health Department referred questions about any hospitalizations to the BOP. The BOP declined to provide information about how many infected inmates may have been hospitalized.
As of Dec. 21, 373 people were hospitalized across Alameda County with COVID-19, the county reported, and 35.7% of ICU beds remained open. Health officials have warned that stress on a hospital’s ICU capacity could lead to reduced quality of care.
Susan Beaty, a lawyer with Centro Legal de la Raza, which provides legal services to immigrants, said one of their clients in FCI Dublin is infected. She has been sick since Dec. 6, Beaty said.
During a phone call with her client earlier this week, Beaty said, they could clearly hear coughing and labored breathing. The woman alerted prison guards on the second day she presented symptoms. A medical official was sent to the woman’s room, Beaty said, but their client needed time to dress.
“By the time she was dressed and went outside, the medical official had left, and the guard told her she must not be that sick, otherwise she would have been faster,” Beaty said.
Beaty’s client worked in the prison kitchen for three days with coronavirus symptoms, Beaty said.
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The BOP said in a statement that “symptomatic inmates are not placed on any work details or work assignments.”
“I think she’s devastated,” Beaty said. “She’s scared because she rightfully doesn’t trust the institution or the Bureau of Prisons to do the basic things to keep people safe.”
Even before the current outbreak, women incarcerated at FCI Dublin were scared and asking for help, according to letters obtained by The Chronicle.
The letters, written in early November by three women, described cramped and dirty conditions and previous lapses in the prison’s virus-control protocols. The letters were collected by attorney Laura Polstein, who shared them with The Chronicle.
“This is one of the worst situations I’ve seen,” Polstein said.
One woman listed in her letter several conditions that put her at a higher risk for serious complications from the virus. She said she did not understand why she hasn’t been granted compassionate release or placed on home confinement.
A prison employee, who spoke to The Chronicle on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, said correctional workers are not tested at FCI Dublin — only given temperature checks and asked if they have symptoms.
The thermometer used to check the staff’s temperature is often clearly inaccurate, the staff member said, registering temperatures several degrees lower than normal.
“We’re hypothermic every time we walk in there,” said the prison employee, who was granted anonymity in accordance with The Chronicle’s policy on confidential sources.
Staff have to buy their own masks, while inmates are given a piece of cloth cut into the shape of a mask, the employee said. Staff members are often placed in areas where they do not usually work, which the employee said may have contributed to the spread of the virus in the facility.
In its statement, the BOP said staff members “must undergo a COVID-19 screening and temperature check” before entering the facility, and are being assigned to the same posts and kept from rotating “as much as possible.”
“It’s important that people know what is going on behind the scenes,” said the prison employee. “I feel like it’s my obligation to speak up if I see something wrong.”
Women incarcerated at FCI Dublin had, before the outbreak, been asking to be released due to coronavirus concerns. An attorney for Elizabeth Henriquez, who pleaded guilty in connection with last year’s “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, called the facility “a COVID-19 tinderbox” in a petition for her release filed Wednesday. A judge denied Henriquez’s petition.
Another parent implicated in the scandal and serving time at FCI Dublin is actress Lori Loughlin, who is set to be released next week.
Advocacy groups were warning of the potential for a viral outbreak at Dublin months ago.
“The individuals incarcerated at Dublin face this life-threatening virus confined in close quarters with virtually no protection,” said a letter addressed to the prison’s administration in August and signed by more than 60 organizations involved in immigration and prison-reform advocacy.
“Inadequate testing coupled with crowded conditions is a recipe for disaster, and individuals report cramped conditions where social distancing is impossible,” the letter said. “Additionally, people from different housing units comingle daily, including for food service.”
In that letter and in another sent in November, the groups asked the BOP to take steps including releasing those vulnerable to serious illness or death and stopping unnecessary transfers between prisons.
In response, an attorney for the prison said that FCI Dublin “continues to remain under its target population, which mitigates management challenges in the context of COVID-19.”
Valerie Zukin, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center who wrote the advocacy letter, said that is not enough.
“They insisted they have the pandemic under control, but now they clearly don’t,” Zukin said. “Population reduction is essential. At the very least, facilities should be depopulated to the level where distancing is possible, and people who are incarcerated can be safely incarcerated.”
Chronicle staff writers Matthias Gafni and
Jason Fagone contributed