Some Lompoc penitentiary employees agree with local leaders over COVID-19 case numbers separation

Posted at 11:47 PM, May 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-12 04:16:49-04

Leaders at every level of government in Santa Barbara County are pushing for transparency and separation, as they argue the high number of positive coronavirus cases at the Lompoc Penitentiary is holding back the county from being able to reopen.

Too many positive COVID-19 cases in a two week period will prevent counties from re-opening businesses.

Local leaders are now asking the governor to count those cases separately.

The federal penitentiary in Lompoc is now home to the largest prison outbreak of COVID-19 in the country.

Out of the 2,704 inmates, 912 have tested positive for the disease, according to the Bureau of Prison's website.

It's a statistic Dustin Miller, a correctional officer at the prison, says is jarring.

"We're a little nervous -- especially workers and officers who don't have that ability to quarantine themselves from their families. It's very [nerve wracking] and very alarming that we could be bringing this home to our families and we have to take as much precautionary measures as we can to make sure that doesn't happen," Miller said.

Miller says he's had to separate himself from his wife and young daughter for weeks to prevent them from catching the disease.

Miller and John Kostelnik, Western Regional Vice President of the Council Bureau of Prisons, argue there's a misconception of what's happening at the prison.

They believe the numbers of cases are so high because they've tested every inmate.

"It seems to be a bit of politics involved, which is a little bit disheartening," John Kostelnik said. "The lines of communication are open whether they want to acknowledge it or not; collectively, we need to work on this together. It's an absolute misconception that we're running things inappropriately. I have a break down of everything we've done from day one and we've done the best of our abilities to manage this," he explained.

"We've taken the proper precautionary measures as far as sanitary items and keeping our social distancing," Miller said.

City, county, state and congressional leaders on the other hand say they are trying to step in to help contain the outbreak of the disease at the prison, but they say they're hitting roadblocks.

"We have offered to help the federal prison authority and as of now, they have not taken us up on that offer," Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham said.

"Clearly the Bureau of Prisons has been woefully unresponsive to the challenges we have identified at the Lompoc prison," said Congressman Salud Carbajal.

Santa Barbara County officials say there is no way to know how many inmates have been tested for the disease and they're relying on the Bureau of Prisons to report everything, including how sick inmates are being cared for.

Local leaders are now urging Governor Gavin Newsom to allow Santa Barbara County to distance themselves from the prison's case numbers as the county tries to reopen -- a move prison staff we spoke to say they agree with.

"Our numbers are contained within the prison, outside of our staff. We tested all of our inmates and now we know our true numbers. If the community is really concerned with numbers and reopening, perhaps they want to do 100 percent testing of the community and see where they're standing and move from there," Kostelnik said.

"We have asked our state legislators to work with our governor to outline what measures the Lompoc prison can take to provide him with the security or guarantee that he wants to have to be able to allow for separation of those numbers to occur," said Carbajal.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors is expected to draft a letter Tuesday to the governor, expressing concern with the outbreak.

That meeting will be held virtually on the county's website.