A tense situation at a federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, where five people have already died in a severe coronavirus outbreak, turned violent Wednesday night when guards attempted to move several inmates from a quarantine area back into the facility’s general population.
Two sources who spoke with VICE News — one inmate and one staff member — said at least 30 correctional officers were called in to quell an inmate revolt, using tear gas and pepper-spray balls to gain control of the situation.
The incident occurred inside FCI Oakdale I, a low-security prison with about 975 prisoners. Oakdale has the most deaths from COVID-19 of any prison in the federal system: The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirms 34 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday among inmates at Oakdale and another 13 infections among staff, but sources inside the prison say the crisis is much worse than officials are letting on.
A staff member at Oakdale told VICE News that at least 46 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. They said 16 of those inmates are currently hospitalized, with six in intensive care units and three on ventilators. Another 56 prisoners are being kept in isolation with severe symptoms, and around 575 are quarantined together in housing units, which have dorm-style rooms with four or more bunks in a 180-square-foot space.
Chad Ingersoll, a 49-year-old prisoner at FCI Oakdale I serving a 15-year sentence on drug and gun convictions, told VICE News that inmates clashed with guards Wednesday evening around 5 p.m. The incident began, he said, when several inmates who had been in a quarantine area were escorted into his housing unit by correctional officers.
“They released some of them and tried to put them back inside the units, and that caused a big old ruckus,” Ingersoll said. The prisoners in his housing unit and those coming from quarantine refused to mix for fear of spreading the virus, he said. As the inmates refused to obey orders from staff, Ingersoll said, the situation escalated and the guards called for backup. The staff that responded used “paintball guns,” he said, to fire balls of pepper-spray.
“They come running down here with their paintball guns and their gas-canister guns and everything else,” Ingersoll said. “One guy got hit with a paintball gun so many times it looked like he was bleeding. But the thing is, they didn't want to come back in. They didn't want to be in there and we didn't want ‘em in here.”
BOP spokesperson Sue Allison said the event at Oakdale was "not a disturbance" as described to VICE News.
"Last evening, a small number of inmates, whose quarantine stay had been completed, were briefly placed in general population," Allison said. "While they were not a health risk, as they had already completed their quarantine time, some inmates were confused about their status and began objecting. The inmates were quickly separated and some moved to the institution's post-quarantine temporary shelter."
Allison said the matter is "under review," and added that the BOP has "already modified our procedures to ensure that communications with staff and inmates are improved as to inmate movements within the facility."
Eric Morris, president of the union for FCI Oakdale I’s staff, confirmed to VICE News that a confrontation occurred and said no staff members were injured.
The staff source at Oakdale said the correctional officers tried to explain to the inmates that the quarantined men were not sick, but the prisoners weren't buying it.
“In the prison world, that makes it look like prison officials just fucked up and brought somebody down there with the virus,” the prison staffer said. “It freaked ‘em out. They’re already scared and freaked about this shit. They think we just introduced the virus into this unit and we’re going to contaminate ‘em all.”
Ingersoll said three men from his housing unit, which holds about 174 prisoners, were taken away in plastic handcuffs. He said those prisoners are now believed to be in solitary confinement.
The skirmish is only the latest sign that the situation at Oakdale has spun out of control. Several staff members at Oakdale are part of a class-action lawsuit against the federal government for failing to provide them with proper protective equipment against coronavirus. The union for federal prison staff has filed a formal complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleging unsafe working conditions at Oakdale and other facilities with coronavirus outbreaks.
The coronavirus outbreak has triggered riots in several prison systems around the world, including deadly incidents in Italy and Colombia, where inmates revolted over harsh conditions. Similar violence has not yet hit the U.S., but there are indications that the situation is tense in multiple federal facilities. Last week, a prisoner at FCI Elkton in Ohio, where three inmates have died from COVID-19, used a smuggled cell phone to broadcast a plea for help on Facebook Live, warning, “They literally leaving us in here to die.”
As of Wednesday, the BOP reports that 253 federal inmates and 85 staff have confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 34 prison facilities and seven halfway houses nationwide. One correctional officer source at FCI Butner in North Carolina, which has at least 42 COVID-19 cases among inmates, said the prison was a “powder keg” on the verge of exploding. At least 21 staffers at the prison have COVID-19, the source reported.
The Butner source said the prison had “a small situation” last Friday where angry inmates confronted guards about the coronavirus situation. “Not a riot, but flash bangs and pepper spray was used,” the person said, noting that there were no injuries from the incident.
According to Morris, the local union representative, at least 24 staff members at Oakdale have tested positive for COVID-19. The high number of staff infections is prompting concerns that the virus will soon spill out into the community around the prison, if it hasn’t already. Because of staffing shortages exacerbated by the outbreak, Morris said, some guards are being asked to work 24-hour shifts. He said there’s barely enough personal protective equipment to go around.
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“The morale is not great,” Morris said. “Everybody is tired, of course, and fearful. The anxiety and stress levels are high. They are telling people you can wear N95 masks but only in certain areas; they won’t give you one unless you work in that area. They gave them out, but when they started running low, they took them back from the staff.”
On Monday, the ACLU sued the BOP and Warden Myers in an effort to get prison officials to speed up releases of inmates from the prison. Attorney General William Barr issued a memo last week ordering the BOP to quickly release “vulnerable” inmates from Oakdale and two other prisons with major outbreaks, but the ACLU’s Somil Trivedi says local officials in Louisiana have been dragging their feet, claiming they need more clarity about who exactly is eligible for release and when.
“Local officials are actually using the memo to gum up the process and slow it down because they claim they’re awaiting further guidance,” Trivedi said. “It’s having the opposite of the intended effect. People are waiting to have their cases heard based on a memo that says they should be released immediately.”
“Nobody has ever come back from quarantine. We feel that going there is certain death.”
Trivedi said one plaintiff from the lawsuit, a 39-year-old who suffers from asthma, works on a maintenance crew that's been building a tent camp in the prison recreation yard, which will be used to quarantine or isolate inmates. Trivedi said the inmate feels like he is “potentially building his own death camp.” That inmate is scheduled for release in October but has not been able to qualify for home confinement, according to the ACLU.
Three prominent Republican lawmakers from Louisiana wrote a letter to Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal this week demanding action to address the situation at Oakdale, and answer about how the situation got out of control.
Ingersoll, who has about four years left on his sentence, said there’s widespread frustration among Oakdale’s inmates about the glacial pace of the release process. He said Oakdale officials are claiming they can’t release prisoners without further guidance from BOP headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“These people aren't going to make any type of move as far as getting people out of here,” Ingersoll said. "William Barr, Donald Trump — whoever, they don't care. You're keeping us trapped in here.”
Ingersoll and another Oakdale inmate, who requested anonymity for fear of backlash from prison staff, both said that inmates are attempting to conceal COVID-19 symptoms because they are scared of being sent off to quarantine.
“People are afraid to tell them that they're sick because they take them away and lock them up,” Ingersoll said. “You don't see ‘em anymore once they leave here. So these people that are sick, they have the cough and everything, they don't want to turn themselves in because they don't want to be segregated.”
The other inmate added that being sent to quarantine means losing freedom of movement, being separated from personal property, and getting cut out of the prison’s social structure.
Before the clash night, he said, “Nobody has ever come back from quarantine. We feel that going there is certain death.”
The staff source at Oakdale said nurses and medical personnel are making regular rounds in the housing units to check temperatures and look for symptoms, but conceded that some sick prisoners are likely slipping through the cracks.
“The medical people are making the rounds twice a day, trying to catch anybody with symptoms so they can get ‘em out and get ‘em treated,” the source said. “But every once in a while, one’ll pop up. You can’t catch all of these symptoms. It can go from bad to worse in a matter of hours.”
The inmate said Nicholas Rodriguez, who the BOP confirmed died March 25 from COVID-19, was in his housing unit prior to being hospitalized. Rodriguez, who was 43 and serving a 15-year sentence for a meth conviction, was known as “Dragon,” the inmate said.
“Dragon was sick for a week with shortness of breath,” the inmate said. “He asked for medical help, but was told he didn't have a fever but he should let them know if he got worse. Inmates could hear him coughing and wheezing in the shower. Finally, his roommates insisted that medical take him and they volunteered to go with him and did.”
Both Ingersoll and the other prisoner said they are currently only allowed to leave their housing areas to pick up meals from the prison cafeteria and shower, which means no hot meals or access to over-the-counter medicine from the prison commissary. They also both said they’re unable to social distance in such cramped quarters; Ingersoll said nearly everyone in his quarters has been exposed to the virus and expects to become sick soon, if they aren’t showing symptoms already.
So far, the outbreak at Oakdale has been largely contained to one of three facilities in the same federal complex. But the BOP now confirms one positive COVID-19 case at FCI Oakdale II, which houses another 900 inmates in a low-security setting. Oakdale’s minimum-security “camp” has another 134 prisoners, including many who are elderly. The inmates at the camp prepare the food for the rest of the prisoners. The staff source said one inmate there appears to have COVID-19, and 119 inmates there have been placed under quarantine as a precaution.
Ingersoll warned that if conditions at Oakdale don’t improve soon, it’s likely there will be future confrontations with staff.
“Listen,” he said. “People don’t understand it. How much longer is this going to go before this place just erupts?
Cover: Stock photo of chain-link fence with barbed wire and razor wire (Getty Images).