“Things are getting so bad here,” Lance Wilson wrote to his brother Jacque. “People are getting taken out of here on the daily because they are sick with the Covid-19 virus. They are setting us up for a death sentence.”
Lance is serving an eight-year prison sentence for his limited, addiction-fueled role in a prescription-drug theft ring, which he is serving at the federal facility in San Pedro, California, known as Terminal Island. The low-security prison sits on the water’s edge and is among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Bureau of Prisons, roughly 70 percent of the inmates housed there have tested positive for the virus and at least nine have died.
“Please help if you can,” Lance wrote. “I know there is so many more people that have it, but they are not testing us, they are keeping us locked up inside.”As the coronavirus pandemic has spread through U.S. prisons, Lance’s letters to Jacque, a public defender in San Francisco, have grown increasingly desperate. In his first letter, dated April 18, Lance wrote to Jacque that there were 33 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and one death in the facility, and that inmates would no longer be allowed to use phones or computers until further notice. Three days later, he wrote that a friend had been taken to the hospital, and Lance, who suffers from asthma and hypertension, was concerned because of the crowded and communal nature of prison: “common bathroom, showers, water faucet and TV room,” he wrote. Please write back, he asked, “if you can, to make sure I’m still alive.”
Five days later, Lance reported that the warden had made an appearance, but didn’t have much to say — only that it would probably be another few weeks before they’d have access to the phones. “More and more cases of Covid-19 are popping up daily and it doesn’t seem like it is getting any better,” he wrote. “I sleep only 2 feet away from my celly.” As the days passed, Lance wrote again and again: The number of sick inmates kept growing, and he was increasingly worried about his own health.
Finally, on May 6, Jacque received the news he was dreading: Lance had tested positive for Covid-19. He was experiencing migraines, body chills, and night sweats. To date, he has not received medical care. “Things are out of control over here,” he wrote.
With Jacque’s help, Lance is now the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed May 16 against Michael Carvajal, the director of the BOP, and Felicia Ponce, the warden of Terminal Island, arguing that prison officials have failed to take decisive action during the unfolding health crisis by reducing the population of nonviolent medically vulnerable inmates, as the Department of Justice has encouraged them to do.
While federal law gives the BOP more than one way to release inmates like Lance, few of the thousands of potentially eligible inmates have been released. And in some cases, federal prosecutors have been actively resisting such efforts — including in Lance’s case. “The way that they’re treating these folks is inhumane,” Jacque said. Living behind bars amid the pandemic is “like being in a firing line. It’s just, when are they getting you?”
Screaming for Help
If things had gone according to plan, Lance might not have been incarcerated by the time Covid-19 began spreading through the nation’s prisons and jails. Although he’d been involved in a prescription-drug theft ring, the government concluded that Lance was just a bit player and recommended a four-year sentence. The judge on the case said he’d go along with that if Lance successfully completed a live-in drug treatment program first. Not long into the program, Lance was accused of having a contraband cellphone, which he denied. He was kicked out anyway. Although he successfully completed 20 days of a different drug rehab program, the judge doubled the recommended sentence to eight years. In contrast, the three principal players in the scam have already completed their sentences.Living behind bars amid the pandemic is “like being in a firing line. It’s just, when are they getting you?”As the outbreak at Terminal Island worsened, Lance hoped for release. After all, Attorney General William Barr had directed the BOP to “immediately maximize” its ability to transfer “appropriate” inmates to home confinement — those who are particularly vulnerable because of underlying conditions, like Lance, and those incarcerated at hard-hit institutions, like Terminal Island — as a means to ease the spread of the virus.Lance Wilson graduating with his GED at Terminal Island prison in 2019.
Photo: Courtesy of Jacq WilsonArguably, the population of Terminal Island, writ large, falls into the category of those who should be considered for swift release. It is a low-security facility for low-risk inmates — a situation that actually exacerbates the spread of illness since the prisoners are mostly in large dormitory-styl