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Cancellation of phone, email access frustrates families of Lompoc prison inmates
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Cancellation of phone, email access frustrates families of Lompoc prison inmates

Officials say communication will be restored when infected inmates are separated

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Inmates' access to email and phone calls at the Lompoc prison has been suspended since mid-April, upsetting family members who say officials have provided no information about their loved ones as COVID-19 infections inside the prison skyrocket. 

"It's very agonizing to know that your brother is in a prison population with 500-plus people infected with coronavirus and not knowing how he is and if he's infected," said Renee Rastorfer, of Massachusetts, whose brother Jack Mootz is serving a 10-year sentence inside the Federal Correctional Institution.

"For the life of me, I do not see the relationship of being coronavirus-conscious and not letting people use phones," Rastorfer said.

Protesters want Lompoc federal prisons to reinstate communications with inmates

Access to phones and email was restored to the medium-security U.S. Penitentiary at the prison complex on May 4, while access at the low-security Federal Correctional Institution was suspended for an additional two weeks, or until May 18, according to Bureau of Prisons spokesman Scott Taylor. The prison complex houses approximately 2,750 inmates between the two satellite camps — the FCI and the penitentiary. 

Telephone use will be restored once infected and non-infected inmates are separated to enable tracking. 

"Positive and negative cases will be separated into cohort groups allowing for more efficient tracking and monitoring," said Lompoc prison spokesman Justin Long. "At that time, telephone use will be restored with proper sanitation protocols followed between each use."

In lieu of phone calls, families have been encouraged to write letters to their loved ones, although access to stamps was also restricted. 

The FCI's commissary — where stamps and mail supplies are sold — remains closed, while other commissaries in the complex are open, said BOP spokesman Justin Long. Indigent inmates are given free stamps, he said.

Jeannie Thomas was briefly cut off from talking to her brother, James Moore, who is serving a 20-plus year sentence inside the medium-security penitentiary, where phones and email have been restored. 

Thomas, who lives in Oklahoma, expressed her frustration at the lack of answers from prison officials, saying her brother suffers from numerous medical conditions that require frequent medication and is bed-ridden most of the time due to pain. 

"They're giving less medical care than what we give animals," Thomas said. "He needs to go to a hospital." 

Jimmie Lee Houston, 75, was initially evaluated by prison health services staff on April 8, according to the Bureau of Prisons, and was transported to an area hospital for treatment due to a low oxygen saturation level. He reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed on a ventilator on April 11. He died Wednesday.

The communications blackout came weeks after the first coronavirus infection inside the prison was reported on March 31.

Since then, cases have continued to climb even as a newly-constructed mobile hospital unit at the penitentiary to treat infected inmates opened on May 6. 

Last week, Santa Barbara County Public Health officials reported hundreds more coronavirus infections at the complex and a second inmate death, 75-year-old Jimmie Lee Houston. 

A BOP website on Tuesday reported 907 active cases of the coronavirus at the prison, including 29 staff infections.  

The infections and death coincided with the opening of the mobile hospital and efforts by staff to implement 100% testing of inmates at the FCI, according to Taylor. 

A decommissioned factory on prison grounds was retrofitted to create the mobile hospital, which consists of 10 double-occupancy acute care treatment rooms that are negatively pressurized to control infection. 

Coronavirus Series: Local impact and reaction to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

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