Alfred Reece says the outbreak began when his teacher got sick.
A former accountant serving an 8-year sentence for convictions related to income tax fraud, Reece volunteers in a GED class for prisoners at FCI Oakdale I, a low-security federal prison in rural Louisiana.
“I believe it was March the 2nd, my teacher came in and he actually was very sick. He was complaining of breathing,” Reece, 60, recalled. “He told us he just came back not long from New York. And he also had been to the Mardi Gras as well.”
From there, according to Reece and other prisoners who spoke with VICE News, the coronavirus spread quickly among inmates and staff. At least seven inmates have died at FCI Oakdale I, including Patrick Jones, a 49-year-old who Reece tutored in the GED class.
"Basically within about a week, one of the students in my first class came to class — I mean, extremely sick looking pale, just basically close to death,” Reece said. “They told him, oh, you need to go to the commissary and get some cold medication.”
Another prisoner, who requested anonymity, said Jones was placed back into one of the dorm-style housing units at Oakdale after having his temperature taken “After that, you had guys dropping out just about every other day,” the person said.
As of May 4, the Bureau of Prisons confirms 46 positive cases of COVID-19 among the 1,000 or so prisoners at FCI Oakdale I, plus 17 cases among guards and staff. But the actual numbers are much higher, according to a staff source at the prison. That person told VICE News at least 39 staff members and 113 inmates have tested positive, including 9 currently at local hospitals.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said steps have been taken to contain the outbreak, including limiting transfers of inmates and screening staff, and the agency is “deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families and the communities we live and work in.”
But inmates in Oakdale and across the country remain frustrated and scared. At least 38 federal prisoners have died from COVID-19, and the BOP reports more than 2,500 infections among inmates nationwide, plus over 500 confirmed cases among staff.
“I just feel like we were all let down,” said Fred Stevens Jr., a 36-year-old prisoner at Oakdale. “There could’ve been steps taken to prevent all of this especially from moving all of us into the dorm where we know we're going to get infected.”
Video produced by Andrea Park and Keegan Hamilton. Graphics by: Jay Liquori and Paige Money. Edited by Kristie Ferriso and Jeb Banegas