FCI Oakdale I. (BOP.gov)

On Wednesday evening a federal judge dismissed a class action lawsuit that was aimed at getting medically vulnerable prisoners released from the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, where seven prisoners have died from the coronavirus.

Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ruled that he did not have the authority to mandate releases or home confinement, and that doing so would make the court a “de facto ‘super’ warden of Oakdale.”

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU on behalf of the prisoners at the facility, had argued that medically-vulnerable prisoners — which they defined as anyone over the age of 50, or with a range of pre-existing medical conditions — should be released from the prison, and that being incarcerated while the virus was spreading in the facility violated their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. 

In a press release, Bruce Hamilton, an attorney at the ACLU of Louisiana, encouraged the federal Bureau of Prisons to move forward with releases despite the judge’s ruling.

“This ruling does not change the fact that our clients, the staff, and the surrounding community are all at grave risk due to Oakdale’s failure to adequately respond to this crisis,” he said. “While it may be too late for the seven men who have died, it is not too late for the Bureau of Prisons to prevent further loss of life by releasing people out of harm’s way. We will continue to fight to release people from these dangerous conditions and combat the spread of this deadly outbreak.”

The BOP did not respond to questions from The Lens. 

Meanwhile, in a similar lawsuit concerning FCI Elkton, a federal prison in Ohio that is also dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus, a judge on Wednesday made a different determination and ordered the prison to evaluate and transfer medically-vulnerable prisoners out of the facility. 

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General William Barr specifically ordered FCC Oakdale, FCC Elkton, and other facilities where there are significant levels of infection to maximize the use of home confinement. 

In an affidavit filed in the Louisiana lawsuit last week, the associate warden of FCC Oakdale, Juan A. Segovia, described the process by which prisoners were currently being evaluated for home confinement release. In order to be eligible a prisoner must have been convicted of an offense that was a non-violent, non-sex offense, be deemed low-risk to reoffend, have had no incident reports in the past 12 months, and have a “viable release plan,” among other things. 

According to the affidavit, which was signed last Thursday, just 27 of the over 1,800 incarcerated people at Oakdale had been deemed eligible for home confinement and were being processed for release. It was unclear how many prisoners had been reviewed. 

At least eight other prisoners were released by court order after a judge granted a reduction in their sentences, according to the affidavit. 

Segovia said that there were 68 prisoners over the age of 65 incarcerated at FCC Oakdale. Of those prisoners, three had been granted home confinement and were pending transfer and one was being sent to a halfway house. Another was awaiting a ruling on a sentence reduction motion from their sentencing judge. 

He also said that staff had identified 18 prisoners who were “severely medically impaired.” Of those prisoners, 16 were ineligible for release. Of the remaining two, one was “pending a halfway house referral,” and the other was “pending transfer to a BOP medical facility.”

Last week, a number of prisoners who had been held in a minimum security camp at Oakdale told The Lens that they were being transferred to FCI Oakdale I, where the largest outbreak has occurred. The minimum security camp had around 140 prisoners being held in a dormitory style layout, with no individual cells. 

Earlier this month, prisoners in the camp were told that someone being held there had tested positive for the virus. 

Arjeane Thompson, whose boyfriend was being held in the camp and has been in touch with her over the phone, said that he was now being held in a cell at FCI Oakdale I.

“They are in two man cells in a unit that hasn’t been used in years,” she said. “It apparently has a terrible black mold issue. He feels less safe than before.”  

She said he told her that they are on lockdown in the cells for 22 hours a day, but when they are let out, there was little social distancing taking place, and the phones are not being wiped down or sterilized between uses. 

In a town hall interview with the Advocate last week, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, Democrat of New Orleans, suggested that there had been negotiations with the Department of Corrections regarding the release of prisoners from minimum security camps, but the details were unclear.

Richmond first mentioned a letter he had written to the Bureau of Prisons asking them to release prisoners from halfway houses, then went on to discuss the camps. 

“We’ve gotten a little traction there, they started releasing people,” Richmond said of halfway houses. “And in fact, now we’ve expanded it to the prison camps — which, many of the prison camps don’t have fences or walls around them anyway, they are like little communities. So at first they were going to release everybody, now it looks like they’re somewhere around 50 percent.” 

The Bureau of Prisons has not publicly released a plan regarding a broad release of inmates from prison camps, and did not respond to a request to confirm or deny Rep. Richmond’s statement. Jalina Porter, a spokesperson for Richmond, was unable to provide clarification regarding that specific comment, and said that Richmond was not immediately available because he was voting. 

She noted that on March 31, Rep. Richmond signed on to a letter requesting information from the BOP regarding their handling of the coronavirus, but has yet to receive a response.

According to the BOP website, 21 inmates at FCC Oakdale  have tested positive for the coronavirus, though that number has previously been as high as 34. It is unclear if the reduced number is because prisoners have been released, or recovered from the virus. 

In addition, the BOP has said that they are no longer testing symptomatic prisoners, and that they will not publicly report suspected cases, making it impossible to determine how many prisoners have actually contracted the virus. 

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...