FCI Oakdale I. (BOP.gov)

A federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, has stopped testing prisoners who are symptomatic for the coronavirus due to “sustained transmission” at the facility, a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said on Monday.

The announcement underscores concerns expressed in recent days by guards and inmates that the facility has become overrun with the virus. 

“As is typical practice in facilities with sustained transmission of COVID-19, local health authorities have recommended against testing additional cases who present with COVID-19 symptoms in the Oakdale facility, but to presume they are COVID-19 positive,” the spokesperson, Sue Allison, wrote in an email. “This action is in order to conserve valuable testing resources.” 

On its website, the Bureau of Prisons has confirmed that seven inmates from FCC Oakdale have tested positive for the virus, the most of any federal prison in the country, and over the weekend a prisoner at Oakdale named Patrick Jones became the first in BOP custody to die of coronavirus.

But the spokesperson said that the BOP would not be releasing the number of presumed positive cases, making it impossible to know how many prisoners at the facility have actually contracted the virus.

“With different jurisdictions implementing different testing protocols, and some inclined to forgo routine testing in order to manage limited testing resources as the COVID-19 outbreak continues, we do not plan at this time to provide those figures,” Allison said. 

Allison also declined to answer other specific questions about what is taking place at Oakdale, such as when the decision was made to stop testing, whether or not guards have been moving back and forth between the multiple prison facilities at the complex, how many prisoners have been transferred to the hospital, or how the prison is defining “symptomatic.” 

Katie Schwartzmann of the ACLU Louisiana called the decision not to release figures of the presumed positives “outrageous and dangerous.” 

“The nation’s first federal prisoner died from COVID-19 at Oakdale because the federal Bureau of Prisons failed to take appropriate precautions to prevent the virus’ spread,” Schwartzmann said. “Failing to test additional cases cannot be used to hide the scale of an outbreak at Oakdale. BOP needs to properly report the full numbers [of] all people they are considering presumptively positive, as well as all test numbers, to be able to fashion a proper public-health response within the prison and the surrounding community.”

In recent days, guards and prisoners have warned that the situation is more dire than the BOP has been letting on, and expressed frustration and anger over the prison’s management of the situation. A union representative for the Oakdale correctional officers told the Washington Post that he believed every member of the Oakdale prison staff had been exposed to the virus, and that he believed they should all be in quarantine. 

“We should not be going in to spread this monster of a virus,” he said. He said that staff members are working 36 hour shifts. 

A maintenance worker at the Oakdale facility told Vice that despite the five confirmed cases reported on the Bureau’s website at the time, he suspected that at least nine inmates had tested positive, and that 68 were being quarantined.

“The Bureau is playing with these numbers,” the worker said. “Because if they don’t test ‘em and they don’t get confirmed they don’t have to be reported, which in turn is skewing the numbers nationally.”

“The facility is presently locked down commensurate with community sustained transmission protocols,” Allison said. “Symptomatic inmates are isolated and additional resources are being provided to manage all symptomatic inmates with appropriate care.” 

‘Sitting ducks’

The Lens spoke to a number of prisoners being held in the minimum security satellite camp at Oakdale. The prison’s website lists the population of the camp at 141 prisoners, and according to prisoners there, it is composed of two dormitories with around 70 bunk beds in each one, with no cells or other means of isolating or social distancing. 

“This almost guarantees that if it hits it will spread it like wildfire,” one prisoner wrote.

The inmates spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation. 

The Oakdale Federal Correction Complex consists of three facilities, two main prisons known as FCI Oakdale I and II, and the minimum security camp. It appears, from communication with inmates and the BOP representative, that most of the cases are confined to FCI Oakdale I. 

But staff and guards travel back and forth between the facilities, inmates said, and there is fear that it could easily spread from Oakdale I to the camp — if it is not already there. Some described hearing coughing throughout the night.

“We sleep not even 3 feet apart from each other in bunk beds!” one inmate wrote. “We have no disinfectant to clean anything properly! Nobody have been in here to check any of us! Its like they really don’t care about us! We are sitting ducks in here!” 

A number of prisoners said that there were old and vulnerable prisoners in the camp, including at least one with diabetes, which is considered a high-risk condition for serious illness or death from coronavirus.

In addition to the fears over the virus, multiple inmates who spoke to The Lens said there were concerns over the amount of food being delivered to the facilities. Inmates at the camp are  responsible for making bag lunches for the nearly 2,000 inmates at the other facilities, who are being given sandwiches for every meal due to the lockdown. 

“Food supplies are of bigger concern than the virus itself,” one inmate said. “We kinda band aide day to day to get deliveries to keep the food coming. It’s harder and harder as this thing drags on. The deliveries just don’t come.”

The overwhelming sentiment among the inmates The Lens spoke to at the camp is that given the dangerous circumstances, and the fact that they are confined in a minimum security facility, they should be granted release until the virus is under control. 

Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr released a memorandum to the Director of the BOP encouraging the use of home confinement for vulnerable and low-risk inmates. Barr said that priority should be given to inmates residing in low and minimum security facilities.

Barr also mandated that any inmate being transferred to home confinement be first placed in a 14-day quarantine to prevent the spread of coronavirus out of the facilities. 

“BOP must use all authority it has to immediately begin releasing as many incarcerated persons as possible,” said Schwartzmann at the ACLU. “We cannot continue to confine people in conditions that might amount to a death sentence. We call on the BOP in the strongest possible terms to release all information about presumptively possible people, and to get as many people out of harm’s way as it can.”

Allison, the spokesperson for the BOP, said that they had received the memo from Barr and that they “will be working to ensure we utilize home confinement, consistent with the memo, to protect the health and safety of BOP staff and inmates in our custody.” 

She did not respond to specific questions about whether releases were being considered for prisoners at the minimum security camp at Oakdale, or any of the other prisoners at the complex.

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...