12 QUESTIONS FROM A COVID-19 PRISON CAMP

ILLINOIS SENATORS TAMMY DUCKWORTH, DICK DURBIN, AND 17TH DISTRICT REP CHERI BUSTOS RECENTLY SENT A LETTER ASKING THE BOP TO ANSWER 12 QUESTIONS AND SPOKE ABOUT IT ON A RADIO PROGRAM THE INMATES GOT TO HEAR. I DECIDED TO ANSWER THEM AND ADDED A FEW QUESTIONS I WOULD LIKE ANSWERED AND WOULD LIKE THE WORLD TO KNOW.

COVID 19

I recently caught part of a radio news program talking about the letter the Illinois Senators and State Representative sent to urge all inmates and staff at the Federal Correctional Institute in Pekin be tested for COVID-19 and asking for answers to 12 simple questions. I may not have all the answers for the FCI, but I can answer some of those 12 questions about the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) that is located on the same property but never considered when the staff reports the numbers of positive cases. I think it is time to change that.

So, before I get into the 12 questions presented, I would like to voice my concern and make perfectly clear how disturbed I am that no one is asking, talking about, or even seems concerned about FPC Pekin. I can assure you our situation is worthy of a conversation.

As of December 20, 2020, 159 out of 168 women are POSITIVE with COVID-19. That is right, this camp full of nonviolent, often first-time offenders that are crammed into this place and remain here without a fence is 95% positive with COVID-19. With the help of the administration and the incompetence of the medical staff, COVID-19 owns this camp. The level of secrecy the BOP is allowed to operate behind never ceases to amaze me. With no one to answer to and no plan to fight the spread of COVID-19 after 10 months of a raging pandemic, this facility intentionally put every single one of us in harm’s way. I feel like one day this will be written about as one of those experiments that went wrong…

On to the 12 questions the Senators and Representatives would like answered.

1. How many staff have been tested for COVID-19 in the last 2 weeks? In the past week?

I cannot answer this exactly. However, I can tell you what is the unwritten policy that I have heard. If an officer feels sick or knows they have been exposed, this facility itself does not test them. The officer must go to an outside source to be tested and while they wait for their results, they are to come to work potentially putting inmates and other staff in harm’s way by demand of policy.

This facility is so short staffed they barely have enough people to work. We constantly overhear on the radio requests for officers to pick up these extra shifts for overtime. I feel they just do not want to know if an officer has COVID-19. Operating on not knowing has been a long-standing mantra of the BOP

2. How many inmates have been tested for COVID-19 in the last 2 weeks? In the last week?

As of November 17th, the Kansas housing unit at the Federal Prison Camp here at Pekin was locked down after an inmate felt sick and went to medical to be tested. She had been summoned over to the FCI along with another inmate, where COVID-19 is running rampant, to pick up legal mail about a week prior to getting sick. The staff member did not feel like coming to the camp to deliver legal mail. So, a camp driver had to drive both inmates over to pick up the mail. These 2 ladies are the ones to test positive initially and initiate the lockdown for this unit. Why the staff would insist on taking a chance to expose the camp to COVID-19 I will never understand.

We were all locked in our alleys. At this camp, we do not have cells, we have open cubicles. We share air and space with no possibility of social distancing. The administration’s initial response to this positive test was to cut us off from using phones, computers, commissary, hot water, and ice machines. Cutting us off from our loved ones was bad enough, however we depend on the hot water tap and ice machine for our water because there is not a single OPERABLE water fountain in this building in any of our hallways where we were confined. The powers above told us they were trying to contain the virus. We were limited to getting water out of the bathroom sink, where we all use the bathroom, brush teeth, etc… Somehow to someone that seemed like a reasonable alternative to stop the spread of germs. Our alley had 27 women confined to a small area.

The plan was to test us that day and then the following Monday. It was extremely clear that after 10 months knowing a pandemic was going on, there was no plan or guidelines in place. When you confine 27 women in tight quarters with stagnant air and no operable windows, you must test more frequently than once a week and get the positives out right away unless your intentions are nefarious. Only testing on Mondays was a ridiculous plan and simply would never have worked to reduce the spread.

3. As of December 16, 2020, which units have cases of COVID-19?

At FPC Pekin, there are only 2 housing units, one is called Nebraska and one is Kansas. The Nebraska unit is considered “recovered” and Kansas has active positive cases at this time. As of November 17th, both housing units were considered to have active positive cases. With the Kansas unit going on lockdown that day, exceptions were made, and the Nebraska housing unit let out the inmates considered to be recovered to work in the kitchen and laundry. As of December 27th, FPC Pekin is over 95% positive. Even the transfers have tested positive upon their arrival and put directly into the Kansas unit to “quarantine.”

With this being said, people need to be asking about the quarantine situation… but I will get to that in my suggestions for questions.

4. Have all inmates in these units been tested in the last 2 weeks? In the last week?

No. Once you have tested positive, you are no longer tested. Even though many continue to suffer with serious symptoms this facility does not do any additional tests, nor does medical offer any treatment. Again, I will cover that at the end.

5. Is FCI Pekin doing contact tracing to find close contacts of COVID-19 positive cases for both staff and inmates?

At FPC Pekin, we asked about contact tracing in a town hall. It made for a great laugh for the administration, but we were not laughing. The answer to this question is NO!

6. How many inmates have had close contact with a COVID-19 patient at FCI Pekin in the past 2 weeks? In the past week?

At FPC Pekin one unit is considered recovered. In the Kansas housing unit, all of us have been exposed INCLUDING THE 2 THAT ARE NEGATIVE AND IN QUARANTINE.

I cannot say exactly how the outbreak was handled in the other housing unit but for Kansas, as we became sick, we were moved to an alley that has been empty since April. They kept it empty and forced us to live in even tighter quarters. The alley is kept separate by foot wide plastic flaps that are like what you might see on a meat locker. There was a makeshift doorway constructed and instead of an actual door, the plastic flaps were used.

The entire until is kept in close quarters with no ability to social distance. On November 17th when the first person tested positive, we were in lockdown and confined to our alleys cut off from all communication and water sources other than the bathroom sinks we all use. Medical tested the unit at a glacial pace testing only 200 alleys the first day and then 300 and 400 the next day. No one was positive on the first round of testing for 200 except for the lady that had gone to medical that morning with symptoms and tested positive. The following day there were 2 more positives on 400 alleys but none on 300. They planned to test everyone the following Monday or maybe Friday. They really did not know for sure.

The positive inmate from 200 alley was brought back after we all were locked in to pack all her stuff while positive with COVID-19. Further exposing all the 27 women tightly packed into the housing alley. Then she was moved into the quarantine alley all by herself. The next day, when the next 2 tested positive they were moved into quarantine as well. The idea was to keep them apart from everyone and a guard was moved into an office to babysit and make sure no one mingled. During counts, officers were in and out of the area. Going into the positive area first before coming into the negative area. We expected this since we watched the officers go in and out of the other housing unit when they were positive and then come straight to our negative housing unit. Some were careful, wearing PPE, many were not.

As more and more people became sick. They moved to the quarantine alley but the medical took their time to test or refused, and administration drug its feet on a bed move. Here are 2 brief examples:

On Tuesday November 24th, after being tested and negative on the Monday test, an inmate had clearly become sick overnight. She informed the nurse of her symptoms and asked to be tested. The nurse told her that it was too late in the day to test. It was 10:16 am. The nurse was not there the following day. By Thursday when another nurse came, we, the inmates, had to beg to have the inmate tested. She was horribly sick and had been with us for over 48 hours at this point. The nurse did not want to. She went to confer with the guard, and they were on the phone with someone for quite some time. Eventually the nurse did test the inmate and she was in fact positive and was finally moved after unnecessarily exposing all the negatives for over 48 hours.

On Tuesday December 1st, another inmate had clearly become sick and told the guard on duty to let medical know. Then at lunch the administration personally delivered the meals. The sick inmate as well as the rest of us let him know and asked him to please send medical over to get her tested and moved. He said he would. When the nurse finally arrived, she was furious and hateful. She loudly told the inmate for everyone to hear that she could not believe she was being called over for this and refused to test her. When several of the other inmates approached her, she stated that medical staff cannot test without the direction of the camp administration and they had specifically told them not to test. Once again, we were left in close quarters with a positive case for over 24 more hours until they decided to test her the next day. Of course, there were 4 more that became sick that night and were moved to quarantine. These are just 2 examples, there are plenty more.

As we became sick, we were moved to this alley until there were too many positives. Then they moved all the negatives to an alley that had just been full of positives, moved all the positives out of the quarantine alley to clean for the night, then put the 20 some negatives in the quarantine. The rest of the building was full of positives. As the negatives would test positive, they would move them out with the rest of us, regardless if we were considered recovered or not.

7. How many staff members have had close contact with a COVID-19 patient at FCI Pekin in the last week? In the last 2 weeks?

At the FPC any officer working has had close contact.

8. Have all close contacts with COVID-19 patients been notified of their exposure? And have they been tested?

I know some officers that picked up the shift to watch the positive unit were not told the people out and about were the positive cases. The inmates normally let the officer know because we know there is little communication with officers and the administration.

As for the close contacts with COVID-19 patients being tested… This facility barely has enough staff to run this place. They are mandating shifts for officers because there are not enough people employed here. I know this facility does not provide the tests for officers and by the steady pattern of the same officers coming through it seems they are either lucky or they have not been tested.

9. Is the prison on lockdown? What internal inmate movement has happened in the prison in the last 2 weeks?

One unit is locked down and one is not at the FPC Pekin. The unit that has positive cases also houses “recovered” inmates and has the alley with 2 negatives does not go to pick up meals or go to medical. Everything is brought to the unit by officers. Every Monday the negatives get tested. Up until now they continue to have positive cases when they test but now, we are down to 2. If they test negative Monday. They will get tested again the following Monday and then take a quest test to be sent out. However, if one of them tests positive or both they come into the unit and all our quarantine starts over for 14 more days. So, when they do that, the inmates that are considered recovered are once again exposed.

10. Are staff who are working in units with outbreaks also working in other units of the prison?

Absolutely. Some will work a shift in the positive unit and go on to work another shift somewhere else in the prison or vice versa.

11. Have inmates in the unit that have COVID-19 cases interacted with inmates in other housing units in the last 2 weeks?

Yes, we work together. This facility does not have anywhere to really separate us and put the active positives. They have 2 makeshift areas in addition to the alley in the Kansas unit, where they took a one-bathroom stall and made a shower with a two-minute water heater. Leaving only one toilet and one brief shower for however many people they decide to put out there. I know at one time there were 22 people. One of the makeshift housing areas continues to have plumbing issues leaving sick inmates to clean up raw sewage after wading around in it. These areas are infested with mice and barely heated.

The gym and other buildings on this property have not had properly working plumbing for years now. I know the gym has about a day’s worth of use before it backs up with raw sewage all over the floors. For over 2 years now they have not been able to get the problem fixed and no one is bothering to even look at it when we have learned this pandemic is going nowhere.

There is just nowhere to go to keep people separated. So, when the next wave comes, we will all be sitting ducks once again.

12. Is the BOP staff training happening in a socially distanced manner? What group training is going on at Pekin?

I have not seen any groups head to the gym for their training during this pandemic. I cannot say what is happening elsewhere.

Again, I want to state that these 12 questions were asked to the BOP by Illinois Senators about the FCI at Pekin. These are answers from an inmate’s perspective at FPC Pekin. I would like to go a step further and suggest a few more questions to be asked.

1. The BOP continues to say they have stopped doing transfers, why do busses and vans keep showing up every week dropping off new inmates?

On November 30th, an inmate positive for COVID-19 with preexisting medical conditions that made her a high risk of having chest pains and struggling to catch her breath was begging for medical attention. The officer assigned to watch the positive cases is called medical. Medical responded that they would NOT be coming over until the next day they were too busy with all the new transfers that arrived on the bus that day.

On December 1st, the very next day, we caught a local NPR radio program that had a staff member from the FCI speaking about how they were not doing transfers and there was only 1 positive inmate and 1 positive staff member. Currently there were 20 positive cases in the quarantine alley of the Kansas unit as well! as another quarantine still housing the rest of the positive cases from the Nebraska housing unit. It proved to us they were not counting us in the number they were reporting.

2. Why is the BOP only reporting cases at the Federal Correctional Institutions for both Greenville and Pekin and refusing to include the Federal Prison Camps that are attached to those facilities? Why is no one asking about the camp facilities?

Someone somewhere needs to have concern for these camps that house nonviolent offenders that would do just fine on home confinement. Instead, we are warehoused and forgotten.

3. Why was medical staff ordered not to test at crucial times during a huge outbreak?

If the intentions were to truly stop the spread of the virus, inmates that were visibly sick and begging for testing would have been tested and moved right away. Instead, they were refused testing and left to infect the rest of the unit. Masks can only go so far. At some point you must brush your teeth and eat, and the mask must come off. We have no way to separate from each other to do this. Thus if no one is actively getting positive cases out the door we cannot stay negative.

4. When the next wave comes, what will you do differently to protect inmates and not infect 95% of this camp?

If there was a plan, it clearly failed. After having 10 months to prepare nothing was done. Big changes must be made.

5. With the Cares Act providing expansion for the use of home confinement for inmates considered “minimum” or “low” risk of recidivism, why haven’t you sent more people home?

There are plenty of first-time nonviolent offenders that live at this camp that have served more than 40% of their sentence. Many are close to their 50% but are on hold until that exact date.

6. What do you plan to do with the 67 people in the pipeline set to begin arriving after Christmas that do not include the transfers on their way?

With the 168 people here now, we do not have the luxury to socially distance ourselves from one another. Adding more people will only make it worse and make our chances of not getting the virus even less.

7. When inmates are positive, why are they cut off from the commissary? Why not allow them to purchase over the counter medications to try and find some comfort from the symptoms they are experiencing? At the same time when medical claims have been ordered to not even so much as pass out Tylenol or any other kind of medications, how does this seem humane?

I realize that we as inmates should have our lockers stocked with medicine, but in a long outbreak, you can easily run out.

8. Why does the medical staff refuse to treat everything during a pandemic? Why is this allowed?

Medical negligence and the BOP are not a secret but have proven to be toxic especially with this pandemic. With a long-lost moral compass, the medical staff here at Pekin are completely at peace with treating inmates as inanimate objects . I have heard horror stories about the medical staff, but during this pandemic, I have seen and heard the most repulsive words and behavior from people that claim to be nurses. These “nurses” were heard on countless occasions mocking inmates and yelling at others begging for help terrified because of their breathing problems or because they were 6 days in to not being able to keep anything down and had become so dehydrated their hands and feet were locking up. We were told that if we were breathing it wasn’t an emergency. Then there are the times they flat out refuse to come until the following day to help inmates that are positive for COVID-19.

On one of these occasions a girl could not breathe. In fact, she has been sick for over 7 months. Staff got involved and with her persistent, debilitating cough, she was given indigestion medicine and told there was nothing wrong. During our lockdown she collapsed and was not breathing. She was taken to the hospital. We just found out what the medical staff had dismissed as an indigestion problem actually has stage 4 cancer. This nonviolent woman, who led Bible studies and was a model inmate, was given a death sentence thanks to the BOP Something’s got to give.

Other people that have been to the hospital return to the camp only to find out that the doctor here will not fill their prescriptions for antibiotics or other medications for pneumonia, bronchitis, etc.

In conclusion, there is a place in our inmate handbook that tells us our rights, and it has become a joke. The “right to healthcare”, the “right to be treated with respect, consideration, and dignity,” and the right to receive prescribed medications and treatments in a timely manner, consistent with the recommendation of the prescribing healthcare provider.” Time and time again these rights have been trampled on in the name of the pandemic. As inmates we are out of sight and out of mind from the rest of society and during the COVID-19 crisis, we have realized just how helpless we are. We need help. We need a voice.

I started blogging from a Federal Prison and now I have come down from my Ivory tower to face the world…