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No phone or email for nearly 4,000 inmates at three federal prisons in effort to fight virus

As coronavirus cases surge inside three federal prisons in California, the Bureau of Prisons has instituted stringent measures in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

The three institutions — in Lompoc and Terminal Island — have cut off inmates' access to email and phone lines, drawing outrage from families who have not heard from loved ones in nearly two weeks. CBS News spoke to the friends and families of five inmates who have been impacted by what one person characterized as a "gag order."

The bureau confirmed the action in a statement to CBS News: "During this unprecedented response to a pandemic, we have temporarily suspended access to telephones and emails, solely to mitigate the spread of the virus from multiple people touching keyboards and handsets."

At Terminal Island, five inmates have died after testing positive for the virus, the bureau said Thursday. The low-security institution is home to 1,051 male inmates. More than half, 600, have tested positive — the most of any federal prison. Ten staffers have also contracted the virus. 

The prison cut off phone and email for inmates on April 17, and its website said the action was taken to "prevent transmission of the virus by touching keyboards and phone handsets." Email and phone services should resume on May 18 at Terminal Island.

"You are strongly encouraged to continue corresponding by mailing letters through the U.S. Postal Service. The highest priority remains ensuring the safety of the inmates and staff while decreasing the spread of the COVID-19 virus," the website reads.

Terminal Island Coronavirus Outbreak
This 2019 image shows the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Los Angeles. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The Bureau of Prisons also suspended visitation across all its facilities on March 13, though at other facilities it has increased inmates' monthly telephone allotment from 300 to 500 minutes and inmates' calls free of charge for the remainder of the emergency.

"Here is an unprecedented situation, in my knowledge, where neither is available and so it is almost a complete blackout of communication," said David Fathi, the director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, referring to the blocks on both visitation and communication. 

Several spouses expressed concern over the policy. One woman whose husband is incarcerated at Terminal Island spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity as to not jeopardize her husband's chances of compassionate release.

She and her husband have consistently exchanged letters while he's been in prison, and even developed a code with their stamps to say "I love you." But after inconsistently receiving letters from her husband over the past two weeks, on Wednesday she received a letter from her husband that was dated March 25. He told her that he was given a swab test to see whether he had the virus. But because they can't communicate, she doesn't know if he tested positive. 

"If an inmate is tested, he/she would be advised of the results and can provide this information to their family. Due to privacy regulations, we are unable to release medical information without proper authorization from the inmate, and logistically that is not feasible for the entire inmate population," Emery Nelson, a bureau spokesperson told CBS News.  

"However, in the event of a serious illness, the inmates' emergency will be promptly notified in accordance with Bureau of Prisons Program Statement 6031.04 "Patient Care.'"

The last time Samantha Grady spoke to her husband, Jeffrey, at the low-security facility in Lompoc was on the morning of April 17 when he told her the prison would be suspending phone use. "I'm just really worried," she said. 

Jeffrey Grady, 36, is a father of five and a cancer survivor, who was sentenced to two years in prison for aggravated identity theft in 2019. 

On Thursday, Samantha Grady received a letter from her husband that said a man in his dorm tested positive for COVID-19 and that every time someone tests positive the prison will restart the 14-day quarantine. As of Thursday, there were 50 open virus cases among inmates and staff at FCI Lompoc, 40 of which are inmates.

Other spouses also said they had not received letters and think inmates have been unable to buy stamps through their commissary. 

A bureau spokesperson said staffers at Lompoc are not "manning commissary and filling orders" but "writing supplies and envelopes are provided to every inmate, and the letters are posted at no charge to the inmate population."

However, the bureau said staff at Terminal Island and USP Lompoc and its camp are "manning commissary and filling orders, to include purchasing stamps," adding that "indigent inmates are provided stamps free of charge."

Across the Lompoc campus, Adriana H.'s brother is an inmate USP Lompoc, a medium-security U.S. penitentiary with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp where access to phones and email was suspended on April 20. The services should back up and running again on May 4.

Normally, she is able to visit him about three times a month and regularly communicates using the prison's email service, CorrLinks. But she and her family have still not heard from her brother since the phone lines were shut off. 

"I have never heard my brother speak with as much fear as I did that day," she said of their last conversation. " When I heard his voice I knew he was scared."

As of Thursday, the BOP said USP Lompoc had the fourth-highest rate of confirmed COVID cases, with 86 inmates and 15 staff testing positive.

Of the nearly 2,700 of the federal inmates tested, approximately 70% have tested positive for COVID-19, the bureau tweeted Friday, adding that the percentage "does not reflect the positive rate" across the federal prison system, which houses 146,000 inmates in 122 facilities.

Sharon Dolovich, a professor of law at UCLA, criticized the decision to cut phone and email communication for inmates. 

"As a matter of public policy it is totally unacceptable," said Dolovich, who spearheads the UCLA Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project. "The people who are running these institutions are being paid by the people to administer public institutions, and lives are at stake. In no other context would we say that state officials can just shut down information and access to members of the public that are in danger."

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