FCI Oakdale I. (BOP.gov)

The federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, where eight prisoners have died of coronavirus, began offering “voluntary universal testing” to prisoners in one of its two main prison facilities last week. Previously, the prison said that it had stopped testing prisoners for the coronavirus — even those showing symptoms — due to “sustained transmission.”

Now, the federal Bureau of Prisons says that testing is “key in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”

“The Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Oakdale began offering COVID-19 testing to all inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Oakdale I low-security component of the Complex this week on a voluntary basis,” BOP spokesperson Justin Long wrote in an email to The Lens on Friday. “This is in an effort to slow the transmission of COVID-19 by identifying inmates who are asymptomatic and are unknowingly carrying the virus.  This is key in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”

Long said that prisoners “are being offered the test and may decline being tested.”

FCC Oakdale is made up of two main prison facilities — FCI Oakdale I and FCI Oakdale II — along with a minimum security camp.  Currently, according to the BOP’s website there are only three “confirmed active cases” of coronavirus at FCI Oakdale I, the facility that was hit the hardest, and just one at FCI Oakdale II. 

It has been difficult to know how many cases are actually at the facility due to the previous lack of testing and the BOP’s policy of not reporting the number of suspected cases.  Now, the bureau is warning that the numbers at Oakdale are likely to increase with continued and expanded testing.

“Testing 100% of the inmate population at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) I low-security facility may significantly increase the number of COVID-19 positive cases reflected on the Bureau of Prisons’ public website,”  Long wrote in the email. “While a number of inmates are testing positive for COVID-19, not all inmates are experiencing acute or chronic illnesses, and the majority of positive inmates are exhibiting mild to no symptoms.”

In other prisons throughout the country, mass testing has at times revealed that huge portions of populations are infected. At a federal prison in Santa Barbara, California, 884 inmates have tested positive for the virus according to the BOP’s website, and more than 2,000 have tested positive at a state prison in Ohio. 

The New Orleans jail has also detected a significant rate of infection after implementing mass testing. Of the 842 inmates who have been tested at the jail, 136 have been positive, according to an update from the sheriff’s office on Friday. Seventy-one are still in custody.

Back in March, in a class-action lawsuit filed against the federal government, three Oakdale employees alleged that they were not given proper PPE when interacting with infected prisoners. One employee claimed that they had transported a COVID-19 positive prisoner to the hospital and supervised them there, but were only provided gloves. 

But Long said in his email that the prison now has an “ample supply” of  PPE for staff.

“Staff are provided the appropriate level of PPE when entering isolation/quarantine units and during enhanced staff screenings (i.e. masks, gowns, eye protection, gloves),” he wrote. “Cloth face-coverings were issued to all staff and inmates, and Centers for Disease Control and 

Prevention (CDC) informational flyers are posted throughout the Complex on hand washing, coughing/sneezing in a sleeve or tissue, and no physical contact.”

Meanwhile, state officials have indicated that they plan to implement mass testing in state prisons as well. But according to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections website on Monday, the only facility that has detected any cases of coronavirus in asymptomatic prisoners is the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at Elayn Hunt.

So far 385 state prisoners have tested positive for the virus. Ten have died. 

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...