A memorial to George Escamilla, Sr. at his son George Jr.'s home. (Photo provided by George Escamilla, Jr.)

Arrangements began back in mid-March for George Escamilla to be released from the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana to home confinement. Instead, on May 8, two days after his scheduled release date, he became the latest person incarcerated at the prison to die from COVID-19. 

Escamilla was the eighth person to die from the disease at Oakdale, which has seen one of the worst outbreaks of any prison in the federal system. At the time of his death, he was nearly 12 years into a 16 year sentence for possession with intent to distribute cocaine and aiding and abetting. But the federal Bureau of Prisons had prioritized his release — presumably because he was imprisoned on a nonviolent offense and because he was particularly vulnerable to complications from the disease.

Escamilla was 67 years old and wheelchair-bound, having lost both legs as a result of complications from diabetes, a major underlying risk for COVID-19 patients. 

He was also a father and a grandfather, and his imminent release was eagerly anticipated by those close to him. 

“He was someone that whenever he called and I had a problem, I knew I could talk to him about things that I couldn’t talk to my parents about,” his granddaughter, Frida Escamilla, remembered in a phone interview with The Lens. “Because my grandpa, aside from the fact that I had a different bond with him than I do with my parents, he just had a different outlook on life. He was always trying to see the positive in everything, you know?”

For Escamilla’s family, along with advocates and attorneys working to mitigate the damage of coronavirus behind bars, his death illustrates the failures of the federal prison system to respond to the pandemic. They have questioned the necessity of keeping non-violent offenders incarcerated — particularly those who are medically vulnerable —  and the lack of urgency shown by correctional institutions to release prisoners from custody.

According to the federal Bureau of Prisons website, there are currently 3,379 prisoners in custody who have tested positive for COVID-19, and 49 prisoners have died from the disease. Public health experts have warned that prisons and jails are uniquely susceptible to the spread of the virus due to the inability for prisoners to practice social distancing and, in many cases, the lack of hygienic products provided to them. 

In response to the threat, U.S. Attorney General William Barr has sent two memos to the federal Bureau of Prisons urging officials to review and release prisoners to home confinement in order to slow the spread of the disease in federal facilities.

“Could Mr. Escamilla’s death have been avoided?” wrote Jose Gonzalez-Falla, a federal public defender in Austin, Texas who had been working on getting Escamilla released, in a Monday court filing. “Was Mr. Escamilla’s demise a necessary consequence of his incarceration at FCI Oakdale? Is such a fatal outcome to be expected for future medically compromised inmates in B.O.P custody as Covid-19 spreads throughout the inmate population? Mr. Escamilla’s children hope that their father’s death will serve the purpose of preventing other needless inmate deaths.”

‘And that was it’

On March 18, nearly a month before Escamilla went into respiratory failure and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, and over seven weeks before his death, he called his son Michael in Austin to tell him that he expected to be released soon. He told him to send his driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance information to the prison, and asked him to install a landline in his home — which Michael did. Then, on April 9, a reentry case worker came to Michael’s house to ensure that the landline was installed and that his house was a suitable place for his father’s home confinement. They found that it was.

Escamilla was given a release on home confinement date of May 6. Prior to that, he was supposed to spend two weeks in quarantine at the prison.

By that time, the coronavirus outbreak at Federal Correctional Complex, Oakdale had become serious. On March 29, the first federal prisoner to die from the disease was an Oakdale inmate named Patrick Jones. Around the same time, The Lens reported that the prison had stopped testing symptomatic inmates for the coronavirus due to “sustained transmission” at the facility.  

On April 3, U.S. Attorney General William Barr wrote a memo to the director of the Bureau of Prisons ordering supervised release or transfer for inmates in facilities with outbreaks. The memo specifically mentioned Oakdale.

“For all inmates you deem suitable candidates for home confinement, you are directed to immediately process them for transfer and then immediately transfer them following a 14-day quarantine at an appropriate BOP facility, or, in appropriate cases subject to your case-by-case discretion, in the residence to which the inmate is being transferred,” Barr wrote. 

FCC Oakdale is made up of three separate facilities. The outbreak began at FCI Oakdale I, a low-security prison that is currently holding around 1,000 prisoners. But on April 7, two days before the staff from the halfway house inspected Escamilla’s son’s home in Austin, The Lens reported that the virus had spread to a minimum security camp at the complex. By that time five prisoners at FCI Oakdale I had already died.

Escamilla was one of about 140 prisoners being held at the camp, all living in a dorm-style setting with bunk beds about three feet apart. 

But despite the proven threat of the virus, Escamilla’s high risk factors, and the fact that he appeared to have already been cleared for home confinement, Escamilla was not immediately transferred, and he had not yet been put into a 14-day quarantine. He remained in the minimum security prison camp until April 15, when he developed respiratory failure, was taken to a local hospital and tested positive for COVID-19 .

It wasn’t until April 30 — over two weeks after his hospitalization — when Escamilla’s condition declined and he was put on a ventilator, that the prison called his sons to inform them he was in the hospital and had tested positive. 

“He was on a ventilator, and they had to sedate him,” his son George Jr. said BOP officials told him when they finally called. “But they told us he is stable. He’s fighting. All of his organs are fine. The liver, the kidney, the heart, everything’s fine. We just have to sedate him. That went on for three days.”

“Then they called us again; they told us that his kidney was not reacting to the medicine, that his blood-pressure went up, but that he was still fighting. They called us again two days later and they told us that the kidney had shut down, and that he wasn’t reacting to the medicine they were giving him.”

By that time it was nearing the date when Escamilla was supposed to be released. But instead of Michael going to pick him up from prison to bring him back home where he would be reunited with his family, his other son, Geoge Escamilla, Jr., drove with his wife to the hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana, where Escamilla was on life support.

“We were there when he died,” George Jr. said. “We could only see him through the window for five minutes. And that was it.”

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed Escamilla’s death on May 9, in a press release. In response to questions from The Lens, Emery Nelson, a spokesperson for the Bureau, declined to comment on Escamilla’s case, citing privacy concerns. 

‘I would like for you to put in bold letters that we do hold the prison responsible for this’

“I can’t understand it,” said George Escamilla, Jr. “I am holding the people at FCI accountable for it, and BOP. Because I don’t see why when my brother’s home got approved, why couldn’t they call him, and tell him, ‘Hey, come and get your dad,’ you know? Because he was a non-violent offender.”

George Escamilla, Sr. had been arrested in 2008 in Austin and pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and aiding and abetting. He was given a 20-year sentence, which was reduced to 16 years following a change in federal sentencing guidelines.

At the time of his death, Escamilla had served nearly 12 years of his sentence. He had been at FCC Oakdale since 2018, according to the BOP. At the time he contracted the coronavirus he was being held in a minimum security satellite camp at the prison, reserved for the lowest risk prisoners. 

Escamilla had petitioned for early release due to his medical conditions before. In 2019, following the passage of the First Step Act — federal criminal justice reform legislation that expanded the criteria in which courts can grant compassionate release — he appealed to the warden of Oakdale, Rod Myers, for a reduction in his sentence. When the warden denied his appeal, Escamilla filed a motion in federal court.

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, of the Western District of Texas in Austin, denied his motion, writing that despite Escamilla’s health problems, the court found “no compelling or extraordinary reasons that warrant a reduction” in his sentence.

“Although Escamilla indicates he is committed to a wheelchair and suffers from other medical conditions, he fails to show his ability to provide self-care within the environment of a correctional facility is substantially diminished,” the judge wrote. “Additionally, as noted by the warden, Escamilla’ s medical conditions are not solely related to the aging process and he fails to show why conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement to his mental or physical condition.”

George Escamilla with his grandson, Sebastian Escamilla. (Photo provided by George Escamilla, Jr.)

In his motion, Escamilla described the difficulties of daily activities such as getting in and out of bunk and using the restroom. In previous court filings, from 2018, Escamilla said he relied on the compassion of other inmates to assist him in his daily activities.

“Self care is extremely difficult for me and I am confined to my wheelchair 100% of my waking hours,” he wrote. “Moreover, my quality of life is dramatically diminished, and the cost of care is enormous to the BOP compared to ambulatory and non-debilitated inmates.”

“I’ve been incarcerated before, and I know the way they feel about prisoners,” Michael Escamilla said. “But my dad was a non-threat. He was a sick old man. So, why didn’t he get released before?”

On April 6, three days after Barr issued the memo directing the BOP to review all prisoners at Oakdale for home confinement, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit requesting the immediate release of all medically vulnerable prisoners from the prison. 

They argued that Barr’s memo did not require the BOP to act with appropriate urgency, and left too much in the hands of prison staff, who they argued could not be trusted to expedite releases.

“Critical decisions are left entirely to the discretion of BOP personnel, who have already demonstrated that they lack the expertise and resources to implement AG Barr’s directives and otherwise deal with the COVID-19 outbreak at Oakdale,” the lawsuit read. “Further, there is no indication how many people incarcerated at Oakdale will be considered and approved for transfer to home confinement. The only appropriate response to this emergency is immediate intervention by the Court.” 

It called the case-by-case review that Barr called for both “unnecessary” — due to the fact that Oakdale is a low-security facility — and “inadequate to the moment.” 

That lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, who 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.”

“My dad being there, with no legs, in a wheelchair, I don’t know why they waited so long to release him,” Michael said.

“I would like for you to put in bold letters that we do hold the prison responsible for this.”

“Mr. Escamilla’s death is a tragic example of BOP’s failure to improve conditions at Oakdale and heed Attorney General Barr’s urgent command, more than five weeks ago, to ‘immediately maximize’ transfers,” said Bruce Hamilton, an attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. “Mr. Escamilla’s death was preventable and avoidable, but Oakdale has obviously failed to prevent the spread of coronavirus inside the prison and protect its most vulnerable population. Mr. Escamilla was in no way a threat to public safety, and his death is a reminder of federal officials’ inexcusable failure to protect the people in their custody.”

George Escamilla’s granddaughter Frida, who is 23, said that caring for her grandfather when he got out of prison was going to be a family effort. 

“Taking care of him was going to be a priority,” she said, “not only for me, but I know for everyone — my uncles, my dad, my brother, my mom — we all knew that we were going to have to take care of him since he didn’t have legs, and he was also a diabetic.”

“We grew up with him,” she said. “We were always at his house. We would get out of school and go to my grandpa’s house. That was our routine for a few years before he had gone to jail. He has always been in my life since we were little. While he was in prison, he always gave me a lot of life lessons. He always made sure that I knew that school was a number one priority, he wanted me to graduate college, which I am in the process of. He always said that the last thing he would want for any of his grandchildren was for them to end up in prison. He wanted all of us to learn from the mistakes that he made, you know?”

“Ultimately, aside from my grandpa’s mistakes in life, he was a caring man,” Frida said. “He was very selfless. If he had something and you needed it, he was willing to give it to you. He meant no harm to anyone. He had a pure heart, and he was looking forward to coming out to be with his family.”

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...