HEALTH
07/02/2018 10:10 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2018

As Health Conditions Worsen At Prison Holding 1,000 Detainees, Staff Fears A Riot

Despite workers' alerts about the unsafe conditions at Victorville, little has been improved and infectious disease is rapidly spreading.

Staffers at a federal prison complex in Victorville, California, where the government recently sent 1,000 immigration detainees despite workers’ concerns about inadequate medical care, are speaking out about worsening conditions as infectious diseases continue to multiply.

HuffPost revealed last week that staff members were concerned about the unsafe conditions, which had resulted in 10 cases of scabies and one case of chickenpox. Now the outbreak of scabies, a highly infectious skin condition, has more than tripled ― spreading to at least 38 detainees. And, according to a letter sent to the staff June 30 and shown to HuffPost, an additional detainee has contracted chickenpox.

It’s gotten so bad that staffers are calling the units the two infected groups of detainees are housed in the “chickenpox unit” and “scabies unit,” and those exposed to chickenpox will live in a separate quarantined unit for 21 days, said John Kostelnik, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3969 and a case manager for the Victorville prison complex.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) toured Victorville on Monday morning with his district director and two staffers from the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Takano said he was appalled when some of the detainees told him they had been unable to wash their clothes, underwear and bed linens since they arrived more than three weeks ago, and many had not been allowed to use the recreational facility at the complex northeast of Los Angeles. Several did not understand why they were being held in a prison.

“I do fear for their safety in the sense of their mental health, their human spirit, that the sense of hopelessness and depression could cause some of them to take their own lives,” Takano said.

Staff who spoke to HuffPost said that, if medical conditions continue to worsen, they fear a riot could break out ― endangering the detainees, prisoners and staff ― as has happened in other prisons with similar medical issues.

I think rioting or hurting staff unfortunately could be just around the corner. A current medical employee at Victorville prison

Staffers had raised the alarm that medical conditions were already unsafe due to understaffing at the Mojave Desert prison before the detainees’ arrival, which increased the total imprisoned population to 4,500. No additional staffers have been hired to help attend to the 1,000 detainees that arrived around June 8, and staffers say that the original intake screening procedures were rushed and that inadequate physical exams have been performed.  

Staffers protested outside the prison last month over the arrival of the detainees, holding signs that said, “Budget cuts will result in death!”

And while the additional detainees are exacerbating the prison’s problems, Victorville is not alone. The Sheridan federal prison in northwest Oregon received more than 120 detainees, and that prison is at only 50 percent of its required medical staff, Travis Ray, AFGE Local 3979 president and a prison officer, told HuffPost.

Inadequate medical staffing across the Bureau of Prisons was highlighted as a key issue in a 2016 inspector general’s report, and the Trump administration is currently implementing cuts to the overall BOP staff by 14 percent nationwide to reduce costs. In Victorville, that was achieved mostly by cutting vacant positions, Kostelnik told HuffPost.

“This is such a damn shitshow,” Kostelnik told HuffPost, saying staff, inmates and detainees are all unsafe due to the staffing shortage and disease outbreaks. “This could have been prevented.”

According to Kostelnik, detainees still haven’t been issued shower shoes or regular shoes that are typically distributed upon arrival, which he believes has worsened unsanitary conditions. Many of the detainees also told Takano they’re unable to reach their families, including 14 men who had been separated from their children or siblings.

“They don’t understand why they’re there, they don’t understand how long they’ll be there and they complain that they’re being treated like criminals,” Takano said.

Takano said it was clear that, though the BOP was doing the best it could with what it had, the Victorville complex was understaffed before the 1,000 detainees arrived at its gates, and this was putting the bureau under “even greater strain” to adhere to the Trump narrative of the “criminalization of migrants.”

The congressman stressed the need for more community-based reporting programs, instead of locking detainees in a prison, saying it would “be far less costly and far more humane.” He added that the rushed handling of putting these 1,000 people in the Victorville lockups was a sign of poor planning for the overflow that could be the result of President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy, which mandates that migrants who cross the border illegally be prosecuted under criminal law.

We’re doing less with more every single day. How soon until something bad happens? Travis Ray, union local president and prison officer in Oregon

“We’re not doing it right. The simple fact that these detainees still don’t have shower shoes, I can’t stop shaking my head,” Kostelnik said. “Containment is my main concern when it comes to the medical issues. If you don’t contain it, it’s not going to stop.”

There are currently only two doctors on staff ― one of whom is the clinical director ― for the 4,500 people incarcerated at Victorville, and the health care team is missing the several nurses and physician assistants needed to be in compliance with BOP guidelines. Takano added that a physician assistant told him the one doctor on staff who takes calls was unable to see detainees because he was busy at other prison facilities.

Kostelnik told HuffPost that the remaining medical staff is also still being pulled from making sick calls, tracking potential infectious disease outbreaks and conducting other important wellness checks to distribute medication for the morning and evening pill line ― a job that should be done by lower-level staff.

“Somebody could die. Having just what we have [in staffing], there is no way you’re going to catch something unless it’s too late or close to too late,”  a current medical staffer who corroborated Kostelnik’s account of the medical situation, told HuffPost. This staffer requested anonymity for fear of retaliation after staff was warned not to talk to the press.

At Sheridan prison in Oregon, they’re seeing some of the same problems, just on a smaller scale. They have had 12 cases of scabies so far and ended up delousing the entire detainee population to combat it, Ray, the union president there, said.

Ray told HuffPost that he only received a little over 24 hours notice before the detainees were bused to them. He noted that the prison has already paid out 300 percent of its employee overtime budget with half a year to go.

“Our staff work extremely hard every day to do the absolute best we can, but the lack of resources and staffing has taken a toll,” Ray said. “We’re doing less with more every single day. How soon until something bad happens?”

Eric Young, the national president of the Council of Prison Locals, voiced his concerns about these prisons being unable to house detainees at their current staffing levels.

“If you already have inadequate medical staff predominantly at all facilities and then bring in 1,000 inmates ― that equates to a recipe for disaster to me,” the union president told HuffPost. “Inmates complaining about inadequate medical care results in somebody getting killed.”

He pointed to a prior prison riot at Willacy County Correctional Center, a privately run low-security prison that housed non-citizens at the end of their prison sentences. That riot, which destroyed the prison, began over a pattern of inadequate medical care and culminated in a riot after inmates saw someone die, Young says.

“My fingers are crossed that things are stable, but I don’t think that is the case, especially when the [detainees] see outbreaks of scabies, of chickenpox. People don’t like to be in a bad health situation no matter who they are,” Young said. “They don’t like that type of situation, and that will set [detainees] off.”

Somebody could die. Having just what we have [staffing-wise] there is no way you’re going to catch something unless it’s too late or close to too late. A current medical employee at Victorville prison

The current medical staffer and Kostenik both highlighted their own fears of a potential riot, saying the staffers do not feel safe.

“When you put a thousand of these guys into an institution, [improper medical care is] not just going to be magnified ― it’s going to blow up,” Kostelnik said. “It’s only a matter of time before we end up with a really bad riot or an inmate attacking a staffer, and the support staff isn’t there as they’re focused on these detainees.”

Young also stressed that he and others had pushed for the detainees to be split up, so as not to overtax Victorville with a massive influx. Their request went unheeded ― possibly because Victorville is only a few miles from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Adelanto Detention Facility.

ICE referred interview requests to the Bureau of Prisons, which said it could not meet the deadline of Monday for comment. Both institutions told HuffPost at the beginnings of the scabies and chickenpox outbreaks 11 days ago that staffing and safety were adequate at Victorville.

Staffers continue to call Kostelnik day and night to lodge work complaints over the current situations, but most are convinced this will only get worse.

The current medical staffer went to the shooting range to practice this weekend.

“I think rioting or hurting staff unfortunately could be just around the corner,” the staffer told HuffPost.

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