WASHINGTON –The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Terminal Island Federal Prison in San Pedro over the number of prisoners who have contracted COVID-19 within its walls. Families and friends of those inside the prison are protesting what’s been happening inside the prison, prompting congressional lawmakers to demand answers.

What You Need To Know

  • ACLU has filed lawsuit against Terminal Island over COVID-19 outbreak

  • Former inmate says conditions inside the prison have deteriorated

  • Kamala Harris, other lawmakers are demanding oversight

  • Prison officials attribute high number of cases to 100% testing

One former inmate, Melly Gipson, said he’s horrified at what’s happening at Terminal Island federal prison right now. 

“I don’t really know how to feel,” he said. 

The 61-year-old spent nearly 10 years behind bars for money laundering and tax evasion. He said he remembers when he arrived in 2001, there were fewer people and educational programs available. But over time, he said Terminal Island got more crowded with fewer resources. In fact, when Gipson was released in 2012, federal prisons were near their peak in population totals, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons

“It was stressful you know because, at that point, you’re really thinking, ‘Are they trying to kill me?,'” Gipson said. 

But Gipson believes he’s fortunate, saying his experience doesn’t compare to today.

“It’s a hundred times worse,” he said.

He said the overcrowding has become exponentially worse during the pandemic. In mid-May the BOP showed Terminal Island accumulated more than 700 cases of COVID-19, from just over a thousand inmates. And while the rate of active cases has gone down since then, according to the BOP website, eight people are dead.

Gipson said this hit close to home.

His childhood friend Tyrone Crosby is there now, serving a seven-year sentence for a non-violent crime. Crosby just let Gipson know: he, too, has COVID. 

“It’s not fair,” Gipson said. 

But the heartache doesn’t end there. Gipson said Crosby's brother, Jermaine, recently died in Terminal Island due to suicide. Terminal Island is a low-security facility where most prisoners need medical or mental health care; Gipson questions why so many people are sick and dying if that’s the prison’s specialty. 

Leaders in Washington are sounding the alarm. California Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein are demanding oversight for the BOP, with Representative Nanette Barragan saying she could hear people yelling for help when she visited the prison. 

“Saying ‘Turn on the air; get us some air; help me!,'” Barragan said, describing her experience at the prison in a press conference in mid-May. 

Gipson said Crosby's release date is scheduled for later this year, but said he hopes the prison will grant him home confinement or let him go to a halfway house as soon as possible. 

“I look forward to him coming out and I know he’s a strong brother and I just hope he comes out well and safe while he’s there,” Gipson said. “And hopefully they just turn the key and what are they holding him for? He’s already set up to be out.”

Gibson said these prisoners didn’t sign up for a death sentence, yet he feels like the federal government and the White House are letting them down. 

Spectrum News 1 reached out to Terminal Island twice in the last two weeks for a response on the lawsuit and to get more information and has yet to hear back.

Terminal Island had said previously that they’ve worked on providing more space by moving inmates into makeshift living spaces and prohibiting sharing spaces, like email and phone stations. Since then, they have started to allow prisoners to use phones. They also said their high rate of cases is attributed to testing 100% of the prison population.