FCI Oakdale II. (BOP.gov)

Beginning several weeks ago, prisoners in a minimum-security camp at a federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, have anxiously watched ambulances come and go from a separate prison facility known as FCI Oakdale I. They listened in to chatter on guards’ radios about a coronavirus outbreak among staff and inmates in the building, and they started to become concerned about the possibility of it spreading to their facility — which houses around 140 inmates in a dormitory style setting with bunkbeds about 3 feet apart.

Then, reports of death began. On March 28, Patrick Jones, who was housed in FCI Oakdale I, became the first prisoner in federal custody to die of coronavirus. Last week, an additional four inmates who had been housed in FCI Oakdale I died.

Fear at the camp intensified. 

“As of now it’s like we are on death row, just waiting to catch the virus,” a prisoner at the camp wrote to The Lens last week.

Now, what the prisoners feared has become a reality — according to multiple inmates, the virus has spread to the camp. On Monday evening, they were told by prison staff that at least one inmate who had been housed there tested positive. 

Scott Taylor, a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) did not directly respond to the question of whether or not there had been a confirmed case at the camp, but referred to the Bureau’s website which he said was updated daily “based on the most recently available data from across the agency as reported by the BOP’s Office of Occupational Health and Safety.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the website was updated to include one confirmed case of coronavirus at FCI Oakdale II, which the minimum security camp is a part of. 

The update also reported 38 confirmed cases at FCI Oakdale I, an increase of 26 cases from just last week, when there were only 12 confirmed. However, BOP previously indicated that it had stopped testing at the facility due to “sustained transmission,” and would not be reporting suspected cases, making it difficult to know how many prisoners have actually contracted the virus. 

In addition, the agency reported that four staff members at FCI Oakdale I have the virus. 

On Monday, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit that seeks to get medically-vulnerable prisoners released from Oakdale. The suit defines “medically-vulnerable” as any person over the age of 50, along with anyone with a host of pre-existing medical conditions such as moderate to severe asthma, diabetes, or conditions that could cause them to become immuno-compromised, such as cancer treatment. It names the warden of the prison, Rodney Myers, and the Director of the BOP, Michael Carvajal, as defendants.

The lawsuit estimates that there are 748 prisoners at FCC Oakdale that are medically-vulnerable, and that being held at Oakdale violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. 

“You are likely reading this Petition from self-isolation in your home,” the complaint reads. “Now imagine if someone sick with COVID-19 came into your home and sealed the doors and windows behind them. That is what the Oakdale federal detention centers have just done to the over 1,800 human beings currently detained there, where a COVID-19 outbreak is rampant, social distancing is impossible, and no one detained can leave.”

Last Friday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr wrote a memo to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons urging him to maximize the use of home confinement for prisoners “with COVID-19 risk factors” at FCC Oakdale and other facilities where “COVID-19 is materially affecting operations.” 

In his memo, Barr also gave the BOP authority to release inmates without electronic monitoring, due to the limited resources at the agency and the U.S. Probation Office. 

“Given the speed which this disease has spread through the general public, it is clear that time is of the essence,” Barr wrote. “Please implement this Memorandum as quickly as possible and keep me closely apprised of your progress.”

BOP officials did not respond to questions about their progress in implementing Barr’s directive at FCC Oakdale specifically, but in a statement to The Lens, a bureau spokesperson said that since March 26 the BOP has placed “an additional 615 inmates on home confinement.”

But according to attorney’s for the ACLU, releases are not happening fast enough.

“What we are seeing on the ground does not encourage us that the federal government is acting with the urgency that will be required to protect Louisianans from this pandemic,” said Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director at the ACLU of Louisiana, in a press release. “We will fight to save the lives of our clients, as well as staff at these facilities and their communities.”

Meanwhile at the camp, tensions are running high. Starting last Thursday, prisoners at the camp began having their temperatures taken daily and administered face-masks every afternoon. But there is still no real possibility of social-distancing, and inmates are being given little information about who might be released. 

Some inmates have reported that there are additional prisoners in the camp who have been sick and bed-ridden over the past several days, but aren’t being isolated nor tested for coronavirus because they do not fulfill all the requisite symptoms. 

“I’m just tired of the stories and nobody is doing anything!” an inmate housed in the camp wrote to The Lens on Tuesday afternoon. “People are really dying over here! We need help! Somebody needs to step in and save us before we all die in here!”

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...