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For Women At A Federal Prison Hospital In Texas, Fear That Coronavirus Will Spread ‘Like Wildfire’

‘This is getting worse,’ one woman said. ‘People just want to sleep or fight. They play with our emotions constantly. This place is scary.’

Nicole has a host of ailments that put her at risk for COVID-19 as she awaits treatment at Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas. She has a rare disease that inflames the lungs, sinuses, and kidneys. The timing of an aortic surgery, which she’s been waiting for over a year, is unclear. 

“The virus is scary to me … I don’t think my immune system will be able to handle it if I contract it,” she wrote in a message to The Appeal from FMC Carswell, the largest federal prison hospital for women in the country. She and another prisoner, Maria, agreed to speak on the condition that pseudonyms be used because they were told not to talk directly to the media. “The thing that scares me is that we are 300 in one unit and if it does slip in we are going to spread it like wildfire.” 

Two prisoners at FMC Carswell have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Bureau of Prisons, including a pregnant woman in critical care on a ventilator, her baby delivered early by C-section. Although federal directives call for the release of at-risk prisoners to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Carswell’s population remains essentially unchanged since late March, declining to 1,658 from 1,664, despite being at higher risk. Multiple women have told The Appeal that they were discouraged from filing paperwork for early release, or that officials have told them that they’re not eligible, without giving a clear reason. Carswell is at more than 130 percent capacity.

“The staff here either are not well informed or do not want to do their job,” Maria, who is about halfway through a 19-year sentence, told The Appeal. She has asthma so severe it requires two inhalers. “There are many sickly women here other than me. Really sick women, who I know would qualify. They just don’t want to do it or don’t know how.”

Attorney General William Barr issued a memo on March 26, directing federal facilities to transfer elderly or sick prisoners who don’t pose a public safety risk to home confinement. The memo has been criticized, however, for limiting early release to “at-risk inmates who are non-violent” and for relying on screening criteria that excludes many prisoners who are at the greatest risk in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s too narrow in scope of the type of person willing to get release,” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM. “It’s mostly lower-level offenders close to the end of their sentences. Those people may not be the most at risk. Let’s say somebody had a gun in their offense, you still want to clear them out during this. You don’t want to sacrifice them because of their offense, which might have been 20 years ago.” 

“If you don’t have a death sentence, you shouldn’t die from this disease,” Ring said. 

Although some prison administrators are starting to release at-risk prisoners—occasionally through a furlough, which bypasses the Department of Justice’s hard-to-meet quarantine standard—others have not. To women at FMC Carswell, the process appears arbitrary. 

“They had told this woman, who is extremely sick, she was going on home confinement and yesterday they called her to advise her it was a mistake, she didn’t qualify after all,” Maria said. “It doesn’t take an act of God to go down the line and check mark if you qualify or not. Either you meet the criterias or not, right?” 

Ring points out that even without a deadly pandemic threatening the federal prison population, many prisoners are serving draconian sentences that in no way match the severity of their crimes. “So many people in the federal system have been over-sentenced. It makes no sense.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Carswell was once deemed the “hospital of horrors” by the Fort Worth Weekly. Another story from 2012 accused the facility of causing “death by indifference.” 

“Carswell has been notorious for years,” Ring says. “It’s almost not surprising that they would be behind other prisons. Women have talked about mistreatment and abuse forever. There are so many complaints from Carswell: abusive corrections officers, mismanagement. Just basic cruelty and mistreatment.” 

Amy Povah, who runs CAN-DO, a nonprofit focused on clemency, points out that Carswell should have been one of the first federal institutions to release prisoners. “If priority were given to any one federal facility in this country, it should be the Carswell medical facility where women are medically compromised and extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus,” Povah said. “As someone who served nine years in federal prison it was rare for anyone to escape the flu during flu season—it takes off like a fire in a dry barn due to our close proximity to one another and inability to practice social distancing or have access to medications and vitamins such as zinc, fresh citrus or vegetables, etcetera.” 

Nancy Ferneau, who spent 16 years in prison, is familiar with the cruelties of Carswell. Over the phone from her home in Seattle, where she has been since her release in August, she ticked off a list of incidents she said happened during her time there, including a woman whose breast was removed because she was misdiagnosed with cancer and another who died in the laundry room after complaints about her pacemaker were ignored by staff. 

“Doctors do not want to see you,” Ferneau said. “You only get to see the actual doctor once a year. To see a physician’s assistant or a nurse, a lot of times they use a number system and by the time you get your turn you get over what’s wrong with you.”  

Ferneau is terrified for her friends who are still in Carswell. “They’re supposed to be on quarantine, but everybody from different units work in the kitchen, go back to their units, so they’re not really in quarantine,” she said. “I tell them girls every single day, cover your face, wash your hands.” 

Nicole and Maria point out that the prison complex isn’t doing enough to keep them safe. “The conditions here are terrible to say the least. There is NO social distancing. We can’t,” Maria said. “For example, we live in rooms with four other women where if one of us is standing up the others have to be on their bed or definitely out of the room. The room is maybe 8ft x10ft with four beds and four lockers stacked one on top of the other.” 

“We are 300 in one unit and four to a little room so it is inevitable that we are around each other,” Nicole said. They got masks for the first time this month but had to reuse them for two weeks. When they were issued new masks a few days ago, the guard told them he had only one box for 300 women. “The cleaning supplies are very limited as well,” notes Maria. 

“This is getting worse, every day is something different. Anxiety is taking over our lives,” Maria said. “People just want to sleep or fight. They play with our emotions constantly. This place is scary.”