FCI Oakdale II. (BOP.gov)

Earlier this month, the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana began conducting mass testing of the prisoners at the facility for COVID-19. But as test results started coming back, it took days for the prison to isolate prisoners who had been confirmed positive for the virus, according to Ronald Morris, union president for the AFGE Local 1007, which represents some of the staff at the facility. During that time, the prisoners who had tested positive interacted with other prisoners, staff, lived in multi-person housing, and worked throughout the facility.

“Prior to them placing the inmates in isolation,” Morris told The Lens, “they had inmates working in food service, they had inmates working in the laundry services, they had inmates working in the commissary services, and these positive inmates were living in the general population housing units, some of them in an open cubicle.”

Morris said that the prison began receiving positive test results on May 16, but that it wasn’t until he contacted federal Bureau of Prisons Regional Director Juan Baltazar, Jr. on the evening of May 19 to inform him of the situation that anything was done about it. The prisoners who had tested positive were put into isolation the next day. By that time, according to Morris, there were 109 of them. 

On May 20, Morris filed an imminent danger report with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) alleging that the “agency’s actions and inactions are expected to result in death and severe health complications and/or possible life-long disabilities.” 

“Specifically, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, FCC Oakdale, under the direction of R. Myers,

Warden, became aware of positively tested inmates for the COVID-19 virus on May 16, 2020 at

FCC Oakdale and have failed to isolate these inmates from the general population of inmates

and/or staff who supervise these inmates,” Morris’ complaint reads. 

Corey Trammel, president of another union local that represents employees at Oakdale, also filed an imminent danger report that focused on the prison’s failure to provide proper personal protective equipment for the staff who were interacting with the prisoners who had received positive test results. 

Since the complaints were filed, the BOP has confirmed that the warden referenced, Rodney Myers, has now been removed from his post and transferred to the Bureau’s South Central Regional Office in Texas. 

Under Myers, Oakdale had one of the earliest and most deadly outbreaks of COVID-19 in the federal prison system. Eight people being detained at the facility have died from the disease, and staff, prisoners, and civil rights groups have been outspoken about what they see as the prisons failure to properly respond to the virus. 

According to the Bureau of Prisons website on Thursday morning, there are 98 prisoners with confirmed positive cases of coronavirus at Oakdale, and 12 staff members. But according to Morris, 119 prisoners are in isolation for the virus and four are in the hospital. 

Morris said prison leadership didn’t immediately isolate the prisoners who had confirmed positive tests following the round of mass testing because they were hoping to do a single transfer of prisoners into isolation. 

“Their excuse was that they were waiting on a completed list of the tested inmates to come back, showing who was positive and who was not positive so they could make one big move to isolate the inmates,” he said.

But Morris called that a “very, very bad plan,” and said that not immediately isolating the prisoners who had received a confirmed positive potentially allowed the disease to spread throughout the facility.

“By allowing these inmates to roam free, across the Institution and in these different areas, these inmates are spreading this known contagion to otherwise clean and sanitized areas and to inmates and staff who may not currently be infected,” his OSHA complaint reads.  

“We consider this to be a gross mismanagement of the situation by Warden R. Myers, and he has completely failed to protect his staff by putting them, and other inmates, in harm’s way.” 

Morris said that he also continues to be concerned about the prison’s reluctance to provide sufficient PPE. He said that for a period of time all staff members were being issued N95 masks, but following a teleconference between the prison administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that stopped. 

“The CDC recommended that we wear N95 masks inside the institution and said it was a good practice, but it’s not required,”  Morris said.

“Warden Myers and the administration became aware that it wasn’t a requirement, they went the next day and removed them from the housing units, except just the isolation units, and refused to give them back to staff.”

Now, Morris said, staff in general housing units are only  given surgical masks, which provide less protection from the virus than N95 masks.

Justin Long, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, said in an email to The Lens that the matters in the OSHA complaints, along with the distribution of N95 masks were “under investigation.”

Back on May 15 Long wrote that the prison had “ample supply” of PPE. 

“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 at the time. “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.”

Morris said that he had been hopeful things were improving at Oakdale. The number of cases, prior to the mass testing had dropped dramatically, and there have been no deaths at the facility since George Escamilla died two days after his scheduled release date, on May 8th. 

“It was like we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Morris said, “but now we’re back at square one due to the negligence of them not isolating these inmates.”

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...