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'We're All Really Scared': Life In Federal Lockup Remains Uncertain During COVID-19 Outbreak

Carswell federal medical center
Federal Bureau of Prisons
The entrance of the Federal Medical Facility Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.

Update 4/12/2020 at 8:57 pm:

Since KERA first reported this story, Mendy Forbes ⁠— an inmate at Federal Medical Center Carswell ⁠— was put into administrative segregation, more commonly called solitary confinement.

Her father, Gene Estes, says it was punishment for speaking to the media about conditions inside the prison and the fears she and other inmates have about coronavirus spreading. He says the news is upsetting, and that his daughter wasn’t trying to make the prison look bad.

“I think the main reason she [spoke out] is that she’s really scared for her life, and scared for the other people she’s in there with,” Estes said. "I don’t see why she’s being punished for trying to help herself and other people.”

Requests for comment from FMC Carswell and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were not returned Sunday evening.

Also, the bureau’s coronavirus tracker shows a second inmate has tested positive at the prison.

Life onlockdown is frustrating and scary, according to Mendy Forbes. She’s serving time at Federal Medical Facility Carswell – it’s a prison with more than 1,600 women who have special medical and mental health needs.

“We have run out of toilet paper, we have run out of pads,” she said. “We’ve had no soap for our bathrooms. It is crazy. We get out one time a day for 10 minutes. We walk to the chow hall, we get hot lunch and we come back with bologna every night.”

All 146,000 people locked up in federal prisons are living life under a two-week lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus. More than 280 inmates and 125 workers across the federal prison system have tested positive. Eight have died. 

She said tensions are high after more than a week without recreation or activities. There are about 250 women in her housing unit but only about 120 chairs, she said. They sleep four to a cell and less than three feet apart. Everyone’s expected to wear the same disposable mask every day. The phones are in pretty heavy use but Forbes hasn’t seen anyone sanitize them.

“Basically I just wiped it off on my shirt hoping not to get it. We are not implementing anything that should be implemented,” she said.

Credit Mendy Forbes
Mendy Forbes, an imate at Carswell, said conditions at the prison facility are frustrating and scary.

Even scarier, the unit across the hall was put under quarantine because of a suspected coronavirus case, Forbes said. But officers still move between that quarantined unit and hers.

“So whatever they’ve got…we’re gonna have…,”Forbes said.

A Bureau of Prisonscase tracker shows only one inmate has tested positive at the facility, but Forbes said she’s heard about both inmates and prison staff who are sick and that several women had been removed to an isolation wing because they were suspected of having COVID-19.

And earlier this month, KXAS-TVreported that a pregnant inmate in her 30s was rushed from the prison to a hospital for an emergency C-section. She’s now in critical care on a ventilator, but the baby, born premature, was doing well, according to the report.

Administrators at Carswell didn’t respond to requests for comment. While the Bureau of Prisons has instituted measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus inside the prisons, the conditions of incarceration make the spread of infectious diseases all but inevitable, health experts say.

Forbes said it feels like prisoners at FMC Carswell are sitting ducks.

“The conditions are bad for us, we’re all really scared, and they aren’t telling us anything,” she said.

Immediate Release For Vulnerable Prisoners

Forbes is serving a 20-year sentence for conspiring to launder money from illegal marijuana sales. She’s appealing her conviction and petitioning for immediate release because hers was one of several cases affected by a widespread phone tappingscandal at a privately operated federal detention facility in Kansas. 

Guards there taped meetings and phone calls between defense attorneys and individuals facing charges that should have been privileged. That information was used by prosecutors, Forbes said, violating her constitutional rights. Others whose attorney-client conversations were taped have been released.

She has pernicious anemia which can weaken the immune system – and Carswell is a medical prison facility – filled with women who are elderly, pregnant or have chronic conditions that make them especially vulnerable. A lawyer by training, Forbes has been helping women in her unit file motions for release. Many are non-violent, first-time offenders like her, she said. 

“They need to be released on ankle monitors and home confinement,” Forbes said. “They are not bad people. But if we leave them here in this petri dish, there’s a possibility they could all die, and they did not get life sentences.”

That’s what the Bureau of Prison was told to do two weeks ago in a memo written by Attorney General Bill Bar. He directed prisons to release inmates based on certain conditions, including age, medical vulnerability and whether they’d be likely to pose a risk to public safety if released. Since then, about 900 people have been let out. 

“We have 10,000 inmates over 60. Generally speaking, about a third of our inmates have preexisting conditions,” Barr said. About 60% of them were convicted of nonviolent and non-sexual offenses.

As conditions inside three federal prisons deteriorated and coronavirus spread, last week Barrordered expedited release of “vulnerable” prisoners.

These conditions are also worrying to the people paid to run the nation’s federal lockups. Last week, corrections workers joined other frontline federal workers to file alawsuit to win hazard pay for working amid the coronavirus pandemic. A federal employees unionblasted the administration for failing to protect federal prison workers and others who are highly exposed to the coronavirus.

'Somebody Still Loves Them,' Inmate's Sister Says

For people with loved ones inside prison, lockdown means communication is extra challenging, Brittany Winner said. Her sister Reality Winner is locked up in Carswell for leaking a classified document to the press.

“And for me, the powerlessness of not knowing if she is safe or healthy or what is going to happen to her next within the prison, or even in her own mind as she grapples with this…I mean, we’re all suffering here, even on the outside,” she said. 

Winner and her mother have been campaigning to get Reality pardoned or released before the coronavirus outbreak. A former intelligence analyst and translator, she was given more than five years in prison, an unusually harsh sentence, forleaking a secret report on Russian election interference.

Winner said it’s little comfort. She worries there isn’t enough testing to detect cases, that inmates or guards are infected already and not showing symptoms and that as Texas case numbers continue to climb, it’s only a matter of time before the pandemic gets into the prison and spreads like wildfire.

Because of severe anxiety and other mental health issues, being locked in means Reality Winner doesn’t get the daily hour of recreation that helps her stay centered, her sister said.

“On a scale of one to ten, where ten is the worst, normally she’s at a seven,” Winner said. “Now, I’d say she’s at a 12. She’s off the scales because she cannot predict from one day to the next what her day is going to be like.”

Winner said she’s worried that corrections officers – themselves tense and scared – will treat prisoners poorly. She said the lockdown conditions make it feel like her sister – and all the people locked down in the federal prison system – are already being given an extra punishment beyond their sentence, even if it’s being done in the name of public health.

“It is easy to look at people in prison and think they deserve it, they belong in there, they’ve done something bad. Well, somebody still loves them,” Winner said.

She said that’s why as many people as possible need to be released as quickly as possible.

On Thursday, Mendy Forbes heard that Carswell would soon begin a process of deciding who should be released. She doesn’t know if she’ll qualify. But Forbes said she should, as a first-time, non-violent offender with a chronic medical condition. 

Generally, though, she doesn’t have a lot of faith in the system.

“We have people who should’ve already been gone. I have one lady who’s close to 70-years-old on a pacemaker where the case manager screwed up her paperwork months ago who should’ve been gone and she’s still sitting here,” Forbes said.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.