This coastal county, known for its vineyards and stunning ocean views, is also home to the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex, which has one of the country’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks in a prison. Nearly 1,000 prisoners have tested positive. Two have died.
California’s governor had set clear requirements for counties to emerge from lockdown. The prison outbreak made it hard for Santa Barbara to meet those standards. So local officials proposed a solution: Don’t count the prisoners.
“The individuals in the Lompoc prison are not out in the community, so it’s really a whole separate population,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, a county spokeswoman.
County officials prevailed. The California Health and Human Services Agency agreed last week to exclude COVID-19 infections of federal and state prisoners when it decides whether a county can loosen up on lockdowns. Before Memorial Day weekend, Santa Barbara announced it had been approved for limited reopening. Shoppers can now go to malls and swap meets. Restaurants can offer dine-in service.
The state made the decision because “inmates of state and federal prisons generally do not return to the counties in which they are incarcerated,” an agency spokeswoman said.
The situation in Santa Barbara, a county with close to 450,000 residents, could play out in communities throughout the country. Prisons account for many of the “hot spots” for COVID-19 infections, from Trousdale County, Tennessee, to Liberty County, Florida, to Marion County, Ohio. And many local officials, from Pennsylvania to Arkansas, have raised the idea of separating out the prison cases.
Some advocates for prisoners called the decision to exclude the cases problematic, raising concerns that the move could reduce political pressure to address the COVID-19 crisis behind bars. They were also dubious about the idea that prisons are separate from the larger community, noting that staff come and go each day.
“It's a fiction,” said Kate Chatfield, a senior advisor at the Justice Collaborative, a criminal justice advocacy group. “The virus doesn’t stay within the walls of the prisons, as we know.”
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