FCI Oakdale I. (BOP.gov)

Four prisoners at Federal Correctional Complex Oakdale, a federal prison in Allen Parish, Louisiana have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed on Thursday. 

The prison is dealing with what appears to be the worst coronavirus outbreak of any federal prison in the country. Transmission has become so widespread that the prison has stopped testing for the virus to conserve resources. Inmates say ambulances are constantly coming and going from the facility. 

“As of now it’s like we are on death row, just waiting to catch the virus,” an inmate at the prison wrote to The Lens on Wednesday.

The most recent confirmed death at FCC Oakdale was 66 year-old David Townsend. According to the BOP, Townsend went into respiratory failure at the facility on March 28. He was transferred to a hospital and tested positive for COVID-19 the same day. He was placed on a ventilator on the March 29, and on Wednesday, April 1, he was pronounced dead by hospital staff. 

The other prisoners who have died in custody at FCC Oakdale were 49-year-old Patrick Jones, 43-year-old Nicholas Rodriguez, and 57-year-old James Wilson. Rodriguez and Wilson also died Wednesday. Jones died on Saturday.

According to the Bureau of Prisons website, there are 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus at FCC Oakdale as of Thursday evening. But the BOP said in a statement that it has stopped testing due to “sustained transmission” at the facility, and they will not provide the number of suspected cases, making it impossible to gauge how widespread the infection is at the facility. 

“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,” a spokesperson for the BOP said about its decision not to release the number of symptomatic inmates at the facility.

Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney at the ACLU, called the decision not to report those numbers “outrageous and dangerous.”

It is unclear if new prisoners are still being transferred to Oakdale. Justin Long, a BOP spokesperson, said the bureau did not have “readily available data” to respond to specific questions about how many new inmates have arrived at the facility over the previous days and weeks. 

Long did say that the bureau was “required to accept pretrial inmates awaiting trial remanded to our custody” as well as “newly-convicted inmates for service of their sentence.” 

“To mitigate risks, we are screening all inmates prior to any movement, we are quarantining any inmate who is newly received, and we are working with the US Marshals Service and federal judiciary to use other means for court hearings, such as video conferencing,” Long wrote in an email.

On Tuesday, BOP announced that it was “coordinating with the United States Marshals Service (USMS) to significantly decrease incoming movement during this time.” The bureau also announced that every facility would be placed on a 14-day lockdown during which inmates would not be able to leave their assigned “cells/quarters.” 

In the minimum security camp at Oakdale, where there are over 140 inmates housed in a dormitory style setting without cells, the lockdown does not do much to isolate the prisoners. 

“They say to practice what they call a 6-foot rule,” said Anthony Fields, an inmate at the camp. “That’s literally impossible. It’s impossible. You have bunk beds in rows, maybe 2 or 3 feet apart from each other.”

Prisoners say that guards have been coming and going from the camp to FCI Oakdale I, the facility where the virus has been spreading among both inmates and staff. There is fear that the virus will spread to the camp, if it hasn’t already.

“We have had a few people that are sick,” Fields said. “Being that we don’t have the test, to solidify whether it is or is not the coronavirus, I don’t know. But is it possible? Highly so.”

According to multiple inmates at the camp, for the first time on Thursday the prison implemented daily temperature checks for the prisoners housed there and gave them masks, which will be replaced every afternoon. 

Fields said that there were a number of high-risk prisoners in the minimum security camp, including those with severe pre-existing medical conditions and many older inmates.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr released a memorandum to the director of the BOP last week encouraging the use of home confinement for vulnerable and low-risk inmates. The BOP has not indicated whether or not it is considering releases for any vulnerable prisoners at FCC Oakdale, nor any other prisoners detained at the facility.

“This is far larger than me,” said Fields. “Some of these guys — let these guys out. Let them go. They don’t need to be caught up in this box like this. You have some guys who are 70, 72, 73-years-old. They just have no defense. No defense.”

Nick 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...