Why Did a St. Louis Man Die in a Federal Prison Coronavirus Hotspot?

Derrick Howard with his father Vernado Howard.
Derrick Howard with his father Vernado Howard. COURTESY HOWARD FAMILY

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Derrick Howard caught COVID-19 at the federal prison Tucson, Arizona, one of the hotspots in the federal system. - GOOGLE MAPS
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Derrick Howard caught COVID-19 at the federal prison Tucson, Arizona, one of the hotspots in the federal system.

So far nearly 400,000 people behind bars in federal, state and local facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 2,400 deaths documented, according to the COVID Prison Project.

The true death toll is likely much higher, however, because of jails' and prisons' culture of secrecy and their tendency to define COVID-19 deaths very narrowly.

Since the pandemic began more than a year ago, some of the nation's worst outbreaks of the virus have occurred among incarcerated populations, who are especially vulnerable because of overcrowding, stress, poor health care and nutrition, and shoddy sanitation — conditions that have sent coronavirus mortality soaring.

Officially, the prison death rate is twice as high as it is in the general population, with four times as many positive cases as overall, according to a report published in December by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

What remains unclear, however, is the full scope of COVID's impact on the federal prison system, which is responsible for more than 150,000 inmates in dozens of penitentiaries, prison camps and halfway houses nationwide.

The ACLU, in a lawsuit filed in October, accused the BOP of concealing information and "stonewalling" efforts by the nonprofit and lawmakers to find out how the prison bureau is handling the pandemic.

"In the face of that failure the BOP has offered rosy assessments of its own performance and stonewalling in response to requests for public disclosure and congressional oversight," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit further notes that BOP's own data indicate that more than one-third of federal inmates tested for COVID-19 tested positive for it.

At some federal prisons, the positivity rate is much worse. More than 90 percent of the 997 inmates tested at the federal prison in Lompoc, California, came back positive, according to the suit.

A separate class-action lawsuit the ACLU filed in May against the BOP and the Lompoc prison described the situation there as a humanitarian crisis of "horrific proportions."

The ACLU and other prison watchdog groups contend the BOP's testing procedures are woefully inadequate, according to Sharon Dolovich, the director of the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

"We know that those are under-counts because there are many facilities that are reporting zero, or under ten or under twenty infections," Dolovich says. "And both because of what we know from COVID, and from what we've seen in countless facilities a year into the pandemic, we know that if you're a prison with twenty infections, you have many more than twenty people who are infected."

Morris, of the ACLU, agreed that BOP officials are motivated to under-test and therefore to under-count infections.

"And then they can say COVID isn't a problem in our facilities. 'Look at how low our numbers are,'" she says.

Emery Nelson, a BOP spokesperson, declined an interview request from the Riverfront Times.

But in a written statement, he stated the BOP "has taken swift and effective action in response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and has emerged as a correctional leader in the pandemic. As with any type of emergency situation, we carefully assess how to best ensure the safety of staff, inmates and the public. All of our facilities are implementing the BOP's guidance on mitigating the spread of COVID-19."

Nelson also noted that BOP personnel work closely with local health departments to ensure priority testing is provided to staff who are in close contact with COVID-19-positive personnel, while the federal prison agency has obtained a national contract to perform all staff testing.

Dolovich, of UCLA Law, evinced skepticism about the BOP's diligence in following its own rules.

"Whatever policies they have on paper aren't actually being implemented," she says. "So they could tell you things that actually sound good in theory. But when you actually talk to people incarcerated in the various facilities, they will tell you that the reality is very different."

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