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Nearly half of inmates at Terminal Island federal prison infected with coronavirus

Prison officials say 443 prisoners and 10 staff members have tested positive, largely because nearly all inmates have been tested.

More than 440 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus at Terminal Island prison in San Pedro — the most of any federal lockup in the country and more than all California state prisons combined.

Prisoners and their families complain that not enough is being done to stem the outbreak at the 82-year-old facility, where half of the inmate population and 10 staff members have tested positive. Two inmates at Terminal Island have died from COVID-19.

One woman whose brother is serving six years for bank robbery said he and other prisoners have been moved to an old, dank warehouse.

“It’s too cold to sleep. There’s pigeons and bats flying around with feces and feathers everywhere,” said the Los Angeles woman. “It’s a hazardous situation.”

In an email, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said Terminal Island is aggressively testing all of its inmates  through the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which explains why the the numbers are so high. Nearly all of those testing positive, however, are not displaying symptoms, said bureau spokesman Justin Long.

“The Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Terminal Island’s highest priority remains ensuring the safety of staff and inmates while decreasing the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Long said.

He said that by identifying and isolating those without symptoms but infected with the virus, prison officials can slow the spread through the prison. Another benefit will be shorter quarantine periods.

Since mass testing began, more 1,000 inmates — nearly the entire Terminal Island population — have been tested, and 443 of those prisoners were deemed positive.

The next highest number of infected inmates in the 45-prison federal system is at Fort Worth, Texas, where 241 tested positive and three have died from COVID-19.

The most inmate deaths — seven — have been reported at Elkton prison in Lisbon, Ohio, and Oakdale in Louisiana. Overall, 1,313 federal inmates and 335 prison staff have been diagnosed with the virus, with 30 inmate deaths.

In California’s state prison system, 181 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, in San Pedro, as seen via Google Street View in December of 2015 (Photo courtesy of Google).

Family members of prisoners at Terminal Island complain there is no room there for social distancing.

“If they are not practicing social distancing, how much will it spread?” said one worried relative.

Officials for the prison system concede social distancing is difficult to achieve, especially with an open dormitory-style setting. Terminal Island has tackled that challenge by placing more than 200 beds in alternative housing to create space. Inmates are being housed in several temperature-controlled field living quarters made available through an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Additionally, the existing prison industry factory and visiting room have been repurposed to house inmates.

The prison also is trying to control the spread of the virus by restricting inmate use of telephone and email stations. While the move is unpopular with prisoners and their families, officials say it was necessary to prevent transmission of the virus by many people touching keyboards and telephone handsets.