Through an email dated December 18, 2020, defense attorney Sadé Smith learned that her client José Escoto-Fiallos had tested positive for Covid-19 for the second time since arriving at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center in August. and the third time since the pandemic began.
As of December 21, prison officials had reported a total of 124 active Covid cases among inmates and 16 among staff. Smith hasn’t been able to check-in at Escota-Fiallos since learning he had Covid again. Prison officials temporarily banned telecommunications for Covid-positive inmates, citing the risk of transmission for other inmates and staff.
However, several defense attorneys with clients at SeaTac federal detention center allege that the moratorium, which was in place for at least two weeks and cited as the earliest possible suspension date on Monday, January 4th, is a violation of detainees’ sixth right to amend legal aid.
It is unclear whether the telecommunications embargo for inmates who had active Covid cases on December 21 has been lifted. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which operates FDC SeaTac, has not responded to KUOW’s multiple requests for comments.
However, defenders say it is their understanding that telecommunications access is restricted to all inmates who test Covid-positive for the duration of their quarantine period.
“One of the reasons we can justify bringing people to justice before they are convicted, before a jury or judge finds them guilty, is to give them access to legal assistance,” said Attorney Emily Gause, who has seven clients in the SeaTac detention center, six of which tested positive for Covid. “This is required under the Bail Reform Act, and it doesn’t happen here.”
As of Monday, the Bureau of Prisons is reporting 53 active cases of Covid-19 at the SeaTac facility, including 11 employees. So far, 287 cases have been reported in the detention center. But several defense attorneys with clients in custody fear these numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“There is consistently higher levels of harm that is not being reported,” said Smith. “It will be months and weeks later by the time we get the information.”
Defense attorneys have pointed to discrepancies between the outbreak data publicly reported online and what prison officials provided during briefings with judges and lawyers. They have also raised concerns about whether Covid-positive inmates at the facility will be retested for the disease after the 14-day quarantine period.
In addition to having Covid at the detention center twice, Smith said that Escoto-Fiallos has not received medical treatment since arriving in August for several other illnesses known to staff.
“It’s not just the fact that Covid happens – pre-existing infections and damage aren’t treated as well,” said Smith. “There’s a really big problem for medical neglect.”
Smith and Gause said they haven’t been able to reach their customers since they tested positive for Covid in December. Several lawyers have filed an application with the federal court to restore phone access for Covid-positive inmates, which the internment camp’s lawyer has objected to.
A statement filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington on December 23 outlines management’s reasons for the telecommunications restrictions.
“Until recently, inmates with active cases of Covid-19 had access to telephones for legal calls,” the file said. Staff brought phones to an inmate’s cell.
“The agent might then wait hours outside the cell in an open common area for the call to end. Workers wore protective gear, but as with frontline workers in any area who come into direct contact with people infected with Covid-19, there was still a significant risk of infection. “
In April 2020, a federal judge in Maryland ordered that inmates held in a federal prison in Washington, DC, regardless of their Covid status, be given access to telecommunications with their legal counsel and to court appearances. Defense lawyers with clients at the SeaTac detention center seek the same relief.
In September, before the SeaTac facility banned telecommunications for Covid-positive inmates, a Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman emailed KUOW that “access to legal aid for inmates in operated facilities remains a priority during this period The prerequisite is “from the agency.
But communication barriers already existed before the recent Covid outbreak, Gause said.
“My approach to my customers there has been bleak since March,” said Gause. “I haven’t seen them in person unless there was a unique circumstance in which I need to see them in person, such as checking the records with them or something else.”
Smith and Gause also said they were effectively prevented from accessing their clients’ medical records and were informed by a government attorney that the records would be obtained through requests for public records submitted with a signed clearance have to.
“It’s particularly troubling to me because without having a really good feeling about my clients’ risk factors … I don’t know if they’re having problems,” said Gause. “I don’t know if they are suffering, and I can’t stand up for them at all. I cannot apply for emergency aid to try to get her out of custody or to a hospital on her behalf. “
Gause contrasted this lack of access with what she described as “unrestricted access” to these records by federal prosecutors who are tasked with notifying defense lawyers when their clients are Covid-positive.
Gause also raised concerns about where Covid-positive inmates were isolated relative to others housed at the facility.
“My clients have told me that when they say they are quarantining people, they are literally moving them to another floor of the same open-air pod,” she said. “Covid can travel the air – that’s why we closed restaurants and all the other things, right? It has no logic. “
For her part, Smith said she was concerned about how repeated ingestion of Covid-19 could affect Escoto-Fiallos’ health in the long term.
“Covid runs rampant through a person’s body, wreaking havoc and then continuing to offer multiple ways to harm them,” said Smith. “FDC isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing. The fact that someone is exposed several times is extremely terrifying. “
Bureau of Prisons spokesman Emery Nelson emailed KUOW in September that in order to curb the spread of Covid-19 in its facilities, “inmate movement within the facility is limited and inmate movement limited for access to the commissioner is permitted. Laundry, showering, access to telephone and electronic messages, medical and mental health care, and some important work details or work assignments. “
The statement goes on to say that prison staff “often go door to door in residential units and do wellness checks”.
Nelson also noted that inmates with Covid symptoms are “tested”, adding that “a contact screening will then be done to identify possible exposures and may include widespread testing as clinically indicated.”