Two more inmates died Wednesday from COVID-19 at a federal prison in Louisiana that is being overwhelmed by a coronavirus outbreak, prompting concerns that the crisis is spiraling out of control even as officials take more extreme measures to curb the spread of the virus in America’s largest prison system. The deaths at FCI Oakdale I, a low-security facility with around 980 inmates in central Louisiana, were first reported by VICE News and subsequently confirmed by the Bureau of Prisons. The BOP identified one of the dead man as 43-year-old Nicholas Rodriguez, who was serving a 15-year sentence for a conviction related to meth dealing. Rodriguez fell ill on March 25 and, according to the BOP, “was unable to maintain oxygen saturation on room air, had a high temperature, as well as a rapid heartbeat.” His condition declined on March 27, and he was placed on a ventilator at a local hospital. The BOP said Rodriguez “had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions” that put him at higher risk of death from COVID-19. He’d been imprisoned at Oakdale since January 9, 2019. The bureau confirmed the death of a second man within 24 hours at the facility, but said no additional details were available “pending notification of next of kin.” Another inmate from Oakdale, 49-year-old Patrick Jones, died from COVID-19 on March 28, 11 days after he fell ill at the prison with a persistent cough. The BOP said Jones, who was serving a 27-year sentence for a non-violent drug conviction, also suffered from “long-term, pre-existing medical conditions,” and had been placed on a ventilator prior to his death.
As of Wednesday morning, the BOP has confirmed just seven cases of COVID-19 among inmates at Oakdale and three cases among staff members. But Eric Morris, president of the union that represents guards and staff at the facility, told VICE News the situation is far worse. According to Morris, nine inmates are confirmed to have COVID-19 and 19 are hospitalized. Thirteen staff members are also confirmed to have the disease, with one hospitalized and 15 more sick and awaiting test results. The sickest prisoners, Morris said, are “on death’s door.”
Another 32 inmates at FCI Oakdale I are being held in isolation with coronavirus symptoms, Morris said, and 82 are being quarantined. Those with the most severe symptoms are being transported to local hospitals near Oakdale for treatment.
The BOP announced Tuesday that all federal prisons — 122 facilities nationwide, with 146,000 total inmates — will be placed on lockdown for two weeks. “Inmates in every institution will be secured in their assigned cells/quarters to decrease the spread of the virus,” the BOP said in a statement, noting that the move is “based on health concerns, not disruptive inmate behavior.”
The BOP said it is coordinating with the U.S. Marshals Service “to significantly decrease incoming movement” of inmates over the next 14 days. The BOP had already officially halted inmate transfers, but broad exceptions to the new rules allowed new inmates to keep pouring into federal facilities throughout last week, even hot zones such as Oakdale. Morris said the prison received eight new inmates as recently as last Friday.
One lawyer with a client in Oakdale, who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns of blowback from prison officials, worried that Oakdale is turning into a de facto death row.
“Certainly, there is no ‘social distancing,’ no sanitizing process, and the disease seems to have moved through the entire facility, including to the staff,” the attorney said. “At this point, my concern is that COVID-19 is becoming a death sentence at Oakdale FCI”.
A correctional officer at Oakdale, who spoke with VICE News on the condition of anonymity because he was worried about losing his job, described the situation as “a total shit show.”
“They give us nothing to protect ourselves except surgical masks,” he said. “It is cross contamination at the highest level. A lot of our staff members are being forced to work 32-plus hours, and Saturday I heard one was at 60 straight. How is that safe for anyone, especially them being on the road trying to get home?”
The officer said three or four inmates at Oakdale are falling ill and being placed in isolation every day, and “a lot of staff members are refusing to work at the hospitals because they are scared.”
The BOP currently confirms 29 cases of COVID-19 among inmates and 30 cases among staff system-wide, but multiple sources have said those figures vastly understate the true scope of the problem, since only the sickest inmates are hospitalized and tested.
In a statement to VICE News, BOP spokesperson Scott Taylor said FCI Oakdale I is currently locked down, that symptomatic inmates are being isolated, and that “additional resources are being provided to manage all symptomatic inmates with appropriate care.”
Taylor explained the disparity between positive COVID-19 cases confirmed by the BOP and reports from inside the prison, stating, “local health authorities have recommended against testing additional cases who present with COVID-19 symptoms in the Oakdale facility, but to presume they are COVID-19 positive.” Not testing everyone, he said, is necessary to “conserve valuable testing resources.”
“With different jurisdictions implementing different testing protocols, and some inclined to forgo routine testing in order to manage limited testing resources as the COVID-19 outbreak continues, we do not plan at this time to provide those figures,” Taylor said, adding, “any inmate who presents with COVID-19 symptoms will be isolated and treated per CDC guidance.”
As for PPE, Taylor said “prudence dictates that equipment is used to optimize the limited supply,” and noted that the BOP’s response plan “allows for the transfer of resources to any institution within our system, if necessary.”
The federal complex Oakdale includes three separate facilities, and so far the outbreak has largely been contained to just one of those, FCI Oakdale I. But the guard worried the spread to others was inevitable — and potentially devastating.
“When it does [spread], the prison will be chaos,” he said. “There are barely enough staff to man the 21 inmates in the hospital. If the other prison gets infected, they will have to call in someone to help.”
Cover: The Federal Correction Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana is epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the federal prison system. (Photo: U.S. Bureau of Prisons)