Column: They’re trapped, and the killer virus knows where to find them in California

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By Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, May 13 2020

Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-San Pedro) speaks during a news conference after touring the federal penitentiary at Terminal Island to inquire about the high number of COVID-19 cases among inmates and prison staff. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There are two places in California where, as the pandemic rages, you do not want to be.

Prisons and elder care facilities.

An astounding 49% of all COVID-19 deaths in California were linked to elder care facilities as of last week, with more than 1,200 cases, along with hundreds more infected patients and employees.

Meanwhile, 886 inmates at the federal prison in Lompoc (almost 70%) have been infected with the virus; 396 infections, including five deaths, were reported at the state prison in Chino; and there have been 709 infections and seven deaths at Terminal Island federal pen in San Pedro.

Family members protested at the San Pedro facility last week and Congresswoman Nanette Barragán, who represents the area, told the Times’ Richard Winton she felt the warden was not doing enough to protect inmates with medical conditions. She said she reported the situation to Trump administration health official Dr. Anthony Fauci, who “seemed a little alarmed.”

I think he might want to be a lot alarmed.

Tiffani Fortney’s father was at Terminal Island serving a 26-month sentence for tax-related crimes, and she was biting her nails at her home in Arizona. Her dad had diabetes and heart issues that made him a sitting duck in the tight confines of a communal setting.

“It was hell,” she said about trying to get information on her father’s welfare. “I talked to him on Easter and he told me one person there had the virus and they were separating everybody.… He told me he’d call in a few days and he never did.”

Unbeknown to Fortney, her father, 70-year-old Scott Douglas Cutting of Apple Valley, got sick. Very sick. And Fortney said she did not learn until the end of last month that her father had been hospitalized in mid-April with COVID-19 symptoms.

“I tried calling the prison but couldn’t get answers. I left a message sometimes, but other times I couldn’t even get to the message thing,” she said.

On May 1, the federal public defender’s office filed an emergency application for the release of medical records and for prison compliance with family notification policies. According to the filing, Fortney’s brother Scott was informed on April 29 that their father had been hospitalized and intubated. The next day, Fortney got a call from a prison staff member saying her father was “not doing well.”

Fortney told me she and her brother were able to speak to him by phone and say goodbye, thanks to the “amazing staff” at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance. On Saturday, May 9, Cutting became the seventh inmate to die of COVID-19 while serving time at the aptly named Terminal Island.

“No one deserves to die like that,” Fortney said. “I don’t care if they’re criminals or not.”

A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons declined my request for an interview, but sent a long list of steps taken since the pandemic began.

“We are 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,” said the spokesperson, adding that the bureau is doing “everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”

Across the country, thousands of prisoners have been released early to stem the spread of the virus to inmates and jail staff, and in L.A. County some jail inmates are even suspected of trying to infect themselves with the virus thinking that might get them sprung early.

Civil rights attorneys and relatives of inmates have argued for broader release of elderly or sick inmates, and for more testing and protective measures. But despite support from public health experts, that’s not an easily winnable argument given resistance from top federal officials, says Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel.

“The responsibility is mistakenly placed on the officials who run these facilities, but it’s the government that is defending” the status quo, said Rosenbaum. “It is punitive and it is a means of saying these are subhuman individuals and what happens to them and their communities does not matter.”

That same societal judgment has been made about those living in some elder care facilities, which is one reason they’ve become such deathtraps.

“People are really shocked that this has happened, but I’m not surprised,” said Charlene Harrington, 78, an emeritus UC San Francisco nursing professor who has spent decades fighting for stricter nursing home regulations and more oversight. “Even before the virus hit, three-fourths of nursing homes didn’t have adequate staffing and did not meet what we would consider to be reasonable standards.”

You’d think that with the virus being particularly deadly for older people, Harrington said, nursing facilities would have gotten a higher priority when it came to testing and doling out protective equipment for staff.

Part of the problem, she says, is a shift in the nursing home industry as independently owned mom and pop operations have given way to big chains and private equity investors.

“They squeeze out every cent that they can,” Harrington said, paying “the lowest possible wages,” often to minorities and immigrants, usually with no healthcare insurance and no sick leave. That raises the possibility of employees reporting to work when they’re sick, or getting sick at work and then infecting friends and relatives outside the facility.

So why can’t a civilized society do a more humane job of caring for grandma and grandpa?

As we’ve been reminded in recent weeks, some people seem to think old folks — especially those already warehoused —are expendable. But the more accurate answer involves money and politics.

The nursing homes wield tremendous influence over policymakers. And even though taxpayers cover the majority of the cost of care through Medicare and Medicaid, Harrington said, “nursing homes have gotten away with minimal enforcement for over 20 or 30 years, so they were ripe for disaster.”

And Harrington said that just as with the other COVID-19 hot-spots — jails and prisons — we can’t be entirely sure what’s going on behind closed doors. For nursing homes, she said, there’s an incentive for under-playing the number of cases to families that are now barred from visiting facilities.

In fact, one source directed me to discrepancies between what one L.A. County nursing facility has acknowledged about COVID-19 infections and deaths among patients and staff, and the much larger numbers listed on the L.A. County Health Department website.

This virus doesn’t play fair. It goes after the trapped, the poor and the elderly, and the mounting list of casualties is unacceptable.

If you know an inmate or prison staffer who got sick or died, or if you know an elder care facility patient or employee who got sick or died, I’d like to hear your story.