Prisoners are starting to be released from a minimum-security camp at the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, due to the threat of the coronavirus, according to a number of inmates at the camp who spoke to The Lens.

Anthony Fields, an inmate at the camp said in a phone call on Wednesday that prison staff had called the names of 15 to 20 prisoners at the camp who would be released. He said that they had walked three of them out the door that day. 

Three other prisoners at the camp corroborated in emails to The Lens that releases were taking place. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has instructed the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to increase utilization of home confinement for federal prisoners due to the coronavirus, and specifically ordered they maximize use of home confinement at FCC Oakdale and other facilities where there are significant levels of infection. Barr also expanded the cohort of prisoners eligible for home release to “all inmates with COVID-19 risk-factors,” and directed the BOP to review those inmates to determine whether a transfer would be appropriate. 

When considering someone for release, Barr also instructed the BOP to take into account the security level of the facility they are being housed in, the person’s conduct in prison, and their underlying conviction. 

A BOP spokesperson, Scott Taylor, said the bureau was not able to provide information on the number of releases at specific institutions. In total, he said that 723 federal inmates across the country have been released to home confinement since March 26, the date of AG Barr’s first memo addressing the issue. That is an increase of 108 prisoners from the number provided to The Lens by the BOP yesterday. 

For prisoners who are deemed “suitable candidates for home confinement,” Barr instructed the BOP to place them in a 14-day quarantine — either at a BOP facility, or, if deemed appropriate, at the residence they are being released to. 

“It is vital that we not inadvertently contribute to the spread of COVID-19 by transferring inmates from our facilities,” Barr wrote. He also gave the BOP authorization to transfer prisoners to home confinement without the use of electronic monitoring, due to limited resources. 

On Tuesday, The Lens reported that the coronavirus had spread between facilities at FCC Oakdale, from FCI Oakdale I, where there are 38 confirmed positive cases of the coronavirus, to the minimum-security camp at FCI Oakdale II, where around 140 prisoners are being held in a dormitory style setting with bunk beds just feet away from each other. The BOP has reported one confirmed case of the coronavirus at FCI Oakdale II. 

It is hard to know how many people have actually contracted the virus at FCC Oakdale as a whole. The Bureau of Prisons has said that it is no longer testing prisoners there due to “sustained transmission,” and will not be reporting the number of suspected cases. Five prisoners who were housed in FCI Oakdale I have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Anthony Fields, an inmate at the camp, said in a phone interview that while it was good that some inmates were starting to be released, there were still many people locked up in the camp who have medical conditions.

“I want it more for the older guys, the guys who are really sick,” Fields said. “There are some really good guys in here that I feel like don’t need to be here in the first place.”

Prisoners are also concerned that there are more cases in the camp than the prison is admitting to. 

“There has been more than one case for sure,” another inmate wrote. “I believe that there are dozens here at the camp. No one will test us. You can show all symptoms but no fever and they will not treat you.”

“All night long you hear these strange coughs,” Fields said. “It’s all around you. It’s bad.” 

Earlier this week, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit seeking the release of all “medically-vulnerable” inmates at FCC Oakdale. 

“While the urgency of getting people out of this prison has been acknowledged even by Attorney General William Barr, who issued a directive last week to reduce the number of people in the prison, that directive was based on a case-by-case analysis,” the organization wrote in a press release. “In this lawsuit, the ACLU argues this posture is too slow. The five people who have died in Oakdale all died after his directive was first issued.” 

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...