Four inmates have died from COVID-19 at FCI Oakdale federal prison in Louisiana in a span of five days, and new coronavirus infections continue to skyrocket at the low-security facility among both staff and prisoners despite efforts to contain the outbreak.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson confirmed the fourth inmate death to VICE News on Thursday, identifying the deceased as 66-year-old David Townsend, who was serving a 20-year sentence for meth and marijuana convictions. Two inmates died Wednesday after being hospitalized and placed on ventilators, following the prison’s first COVID-19 death, on March 28.
The BOP currently reports only 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates at Oakdale, plus another four cases among prison staff, but VICE News has been told by employees there that the situation is much more grim.
At least 18 inmates have tested positive for the disease and are currently hospitalized, according to Eric Morris, a maintenance worker foreman at Oakdale who is president of the union for prison staff. Morris reports that 17 prison workers are confirmed to have COVID-19, including one who is hospitalized. Another 19 workers are awaiting test results, Morris said.
A BOP spokesperson told VICE News that not all symptomatic inmates at Oakdale and elsewhere are being tested for COVID-19 in order to “conserve valuable testing resources.”
Morris reports that prison officials are bracing for the situation to worsen in the coming days, setting up a field hospital with tents inside the prison compound. He said corrections officers and other staff are terrified of spreading the virus to their families and the surrounding community, but it might be too late. He described one prison staffer whose mother, father, and cousin are all sick with COVID-19 symptoms. That person, he said, is still coming to work.
“I got union members right now with family members who are sick and getting tested,” Morris said. “We know we’re exposing our families. I got staff living in travel trailers beside their home to not infect their families. They’re not having any physical contact with their families right now.”
The prison has also converted a training center into a makeshift barracks for prison staff, Morris said, with cots and laundry machines set up so that staff who wish to stay can remain on site. Female staff have separate accommodations in the form of “18-wheeler bunkhouses,” he said.
Oakdale is a federal complex about a two-hour drive west of Baton Rouge, with two low-security prisons and one minimum-security camp housing around 1,900 total inmates. Many of those prisoners are elderly or have pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk of death from COVID-19. The large number of at-risk inmates also heightens concerns that the outbreak will overwhelm local medical facilities in rural Louisiana. Allen Parish, where Oakdale is located, has recorded 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
“This virus, if you are claiming it’s a hoax or blaming politics on this, it’s a humanity issue,” Morris said. “We’re seeing the virus spread even more in our community. We know as employees of the BOP at Oakdale, we have contributed to that due to us being exposed to this institution. It’s frightening, man.”
Kevin Litten, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health, told VICE News that local hospitals and medical workers have been issued guidance about how to protect themselves and prevent community spread of coronavirus "when treating or transporting patients, including those who are incarcerated at Oakdale."
"The Louisiana Department of Health is concerned about coronavirus community spread in Allen Parish, just as we are concerned about community spread in every parish across Louisiana," Litten said. "The Department has communicated with Federal Correctional Institution Oakdale about best practices in isolating cases of coronavirus and suspected coronavirus at the facility to mitigate the possibility of community spread."
The BOP identified the inmate who died Wednesday evening as 57-year-old James Wilson, who was serving an 11-year sentence for child pornography. Earlier Wednesday, 43-year-old Nicholas Rodriguez, who was serving a 15-year sentence for a methamphetamine conviction, died at a local hospital. The first inmate to die was Patrick Jones, 49, who was serving a 27-year sentence for a crack cocaine conviction. All of the men, according to the BOP, had pre-existing conditions and were sick for days before being hospitalized.
At least 32 inmates are being held in isolation at Oakdale with symptoms of COVID-19, and another 81 are in quarantine as a precaution, according to Morris.
So far, the outbreak appears to be confined to one facility, FCI Oakdale I, which houses around 970 inmates, mostly in dorm-style housing units with multiple bunks in the same room. The prison has been on full lockdown since March 22, but inmates are still allowed to leave their cells to shower and use the phone to communicate with their families and attorneys.
One prisoner inside the facility told VICE News that they have only been receiving “sack lunches” inside their housing units since the lockdown began, with no hot meals provided. The food is prepared by inmates at the adjacent minimum-security camp, and several sources have expressed grave concern about what happens if the outbreak spreads there. Guards are reportedly moving between the facilities to transport food.
“The public needs to know that we are intermingling with individuals who are sick in here, and none have been tested unless they're hospitalized,” said the Oakdale inmate, who requested anonymity due to concerns of being punished by prison staff for speaking out.
The BOP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations about food at the prison, infections among prison staff, and possible community spread.
The BOP announced Tuesday that all 122 federal prison facilities nationwide, with 146,000 total inmates, will be placed on lockdown for two weeks. The BOP said additional measures are being taken to contain the spread of the virus, including further limiting transfers of inmates between facilities, though some movement is expected to continue for medical trips, new arrivals, and other exceptions.
As of Thursday morning, the BOP confirmed a total of 57 inmates with COVID-19 in 15 facilities around the country. The agency says another 37 staff members in 18 separate facilities are confirmed to have the disease.
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 added that at all BOP facilities, “any inmate who presents with COVID-19 symptoms will be isolated and treated per CDC guidance.”
Cover: The Federal Correction Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana, is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the federal prison system. (Photo: U.S. Bureau of Prisons)