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Inside the Federal Prison That's ‘Ground Zero’ For the Coronavirus Outbreak

Coronavirus is spreading across the Bureau of Prisons, already killing one inmate in Louisiana and threatening to overwhelm local hospitals.
March 30, 2020, 4:15pm
The Federal Correction Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana is epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the federal prison system.
Bureau of Prisons

Eric Morris is a maintenance worker foreman at the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, but last week, with the low-security facility overwhelmed and short-staffed amid a coronavirus outbreak that has already left one prisoner dead, he volunteered to work a guard shift.

He started at 6 a.m. and was on duty for 18 hours straight, dealing with hundreds of panicked and sick inmates. He got off at midnight, leaving barely enough time to sleep and see his family before reporting back again at 6 a.m. the next morning.

“We are ground zero right now,” Morris said from the prison parking lot during his lunch break on Friday. “We’re probably doing two emergency trips a day with inmates having to be rushed to hospital for the last five days. The ambulances just roll in and roll out of the facility.”

The Bureau of Prisons officially confirms just five positive cases of COVID-19 among prisoners in the complex at Oakdale, which houses around 1,880 men in three facilities, but Morris and others say the actual number is far higher because symptomatic inmates are not being tested until they become so ill they must be hospitalized.

Morris put the number of infected staff at seven, as of Monday morning, with 13 more awaiting test results. He said nine inmates have tested positive, 15 are hospitalized, 23 are being isolated at the prison with symptoms, and 68 are in quarantine.

“The Bureau is playing with these numbers,” said Morris, who also serves as the president of a union that represents staff and correctional officers at Oakdale. “Because if they don’t test ‘em and they don't get confirmed they don’t have to be reported, which in turn is skewing the numbers nationally.”

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The Federal Correctional Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana is a minimum-security prison. (Image: Google Maps)

A BOP spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations. The agency, which has 175,000 inmates and 36,000 staff members nationwide, has so far reported 14 COVID-19 cases among inmates in six facilities, and another 13 staff cases in 10 locations. It has not confirmed any infected staff members at Oakdale.

The dire situation at Oakdale is reflective of what’s happening at several other federal prisons across the United States, according to interviews with prison staff, inmates, and attorneys who represent both groups. The coronavirus is now spreading like wildfire in a handful of facilities, prompting warnings that it will soon spill outside the prison walls, infecting communities and overwhelming local hospitals.

Top government officials have downplayed the severity outbreak, claiming that the situation is under control and stating that there’s more than enough protective gear to go around. But multiple sources told VICE News that does not match the reality on the ground. The BOP is allegedly ignoring its own guidelines by allowing guards who have been exposed to the virus to work, and by continuing to transfer inmates around the U.S., even shipping them to Oakdale, which Morris said received a bus with eight new prisoners on Friday.

Inmate movement continues, BOP spokesperson Justin Long said, because there are multiple exceptions to the transfer freeze, including “because the federal judicial system as well as state courts continue to process criminal cases.” As for the alleged under-counting of infections, Long said, “The BOP has had no problems accessing tests through local health departments.”

Inmate death

Late Saturday evening, the BOP announced the first federal inmate death from COVID-19, which involved a prisoner from Oakdale. According to the BOP, 49-year-old Patrick Jones, who was serving a 27-year sentence for a crack cocaine conviction, fell ill on March 19 and complained of a persistent cough. Jones, who the BOP said had “long-term, pre-existing medical conditions,” was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator after his condition declined. He died March 28 in a local hospital near the prison, about 100 miles west of Baton Rouge.

One prisoner in Oakdale, who wrote to VICE News on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retribution from prison officials, said Jones was known to have asthma but was otherwise in good health. The prisoner described grim conditions at Oakdale, where he’s housed in a windowless, dorm-style room with six other men, who share one toilet. The prisoner said a “Special Housing Unit,” which has 80 two-man cells, has been converted into a quarantine area that is now at capacity.

“It sounded like a tuberculosis sanatorium of the old days with coughing going around all hours of the night.”

“It sounded like a tuberculosis sanatorium of the old days with coughing going around all hours of the night,” the prisoner said. He claimed to have witnessed at least three people collapse in common areas and get taken away to the hospital or the SHU quarantine area. “Everyone in the facility is sick and coughing.”

The prisoner said a doctor recently came through his unit to take temperatures and listen to people’s breathing through a stethoscope, which did not appear to be sanitized between patients. It’s impossible to practice social distancing in such close quarters, he said, and everyone is still being forced to line up to get their prescribed medication. Only inmates tasked with cleaning have been given gloves and masks, he said. Hand sanitizer, which contains alcohol, is banned under BOP rules.

“Nothing has changed,” the prisoner said. “We're still using the same chemical to clean and it's up to the orderly to carry out the jobs. Some only clean the bathroom every other day. The unit is filthy and dirty.”

On Friday, lawyers in Washington, D.C. filed a class-action lawsuit seeking hazard pay for federal workers exposed to the coronavirus while on the job. Three plaintiffs in the lawsuit are from Oakdale, including a correctional officer who claims he was ordered to transport a sick prisoner to the hospital with no protective equipment beyond a pair of gloves. The lawyers said in a press release that one of the facilities at Oakdale did not go on full lockdown until March 21, which meant nearly 1,000 prisoners “have been going to their work assignments and going to the dining hall for their meals, despite COVID-19 running rampant in the institution.”

Some correctional officers in Oakdale are working for up to 32 hours straight, Morris said, with staffing shortages caused by people calling in sick, either with COVID-19 symptoms, because they are exhausted, or because they are afraid of contracting the disease and transmitting it to their families.

“It’s the unknown enemy,” Morris said. “You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t feel it. You just don’t know until you come down with the symptoms. Nobody wants to bring this home to their family.”

The BOP has taken some measures to address the crisis, including halting family and legal visits, and screening staff members for symptoms before their shifts. But Morris and others said those who report mild symptoms are being allowed to return to work the next day, in part because there’s nobody to replace them.

BOP Director Michael Carvajal said in a March 26 statement that the agency has been planning for the coronavirus since late January, adapting an existing strategy for dealing with an influenza outbreak. "We believe that the low number of cases to this point, in a system this large, is a testament to our effective planning and execution to-date,” he said.

‘An absolute shit show’

A source at FCC Butner, a federal prison complex in North Carolina where at least one staff member has tested positive for COVID-19, vehemently disputed Carvajal’s assessment of the situation, instead calling it “an absolute shit show.” The source, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said at least 30 inmates are in isolation with many showing symptoms.

“The BOP director can spin it all he wants, but logical solutions and preventative measures were not thought of nor implemented in a timely manner,” the Butner source said. “The numbers are low due to lack of testing and/or a cover up.”

The person said one inmate, an 81-year-old man from a medium-security facility, died Friday after being hospitalized and placed on a ventilator, but Long, the BOP spokesperson, told VICE News that “there have been no deaths due to COVID-19 at FCI Butner.”

Butner includes three prisons and a medical center, housing more than 4,600 total inmates, including high-profile people such as Wall Street fraudster Bernie Madoff and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, the former head of Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel. Many prisoners are sick or elderly, the source said, meaning a severe outbreak could quickly spiral out of control.

“It’s a powder keg that’s going to explode soon and I don’t know what we would do to contain it.”

“This is dangerous for us, inmates, and the public,” the person said. “It’s a powder keg that’s going to explode soon and I don’t know what we would do to contain it. The powers that be are incompetent and no one has a plan.”

The Butner source said UNICOR, which puts inmates to work manufacturing various products, has continued to operate, and was only repurposed last week to have inmates make masks and other gear that could be used in the outbreak response. Carvajal said the BOP has “ample supplies are on hand and ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary.”

At Oakdale, Morris said most staff members were only fitted for N95 respirator masks this past week, and they were already running low and those and other protective equipment known as PPE. He said the prison arranged for the purchase of 5,500 new N95 masks, but those were not expected to arrive until the end of the week. He asked: “If the director has so much PPE, why isn’t he sending it to the hot zone instead of us buying and waiting for it?”

At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, which houses around 1,700 pre-trial detainees, the BOP says only one inmate and one staff member have tested positive for COVID-19. But Anthony Sanon, president of the union for jail staff, said at least one other guard has the disease, and 80-90 inmates are in isolation, with many showing symptoms.

“Some staff came in with fevers and headaches. A lot of these staff returned home and were asked to come back within two or three days.”

“Some staff came in with fevers and headaches,” Sanon said. “A lot of these staff returned home and were asked to come back within two or three days. It clearly states [in the BOP guidelines] that anybody sent home needs to be quarantined for 14 days, but that’s not even the case, even the staff in contact with this infected inmate. They were sent home and asked to come back the next week.”

VICE News was able to confirm the identity of the MDC inmate who tested positive for COVID-19, but is not identifying him for privacy reasons. He’s a 54-year-old Dominican man who was previously sentenced to five years in federal prison on immigration-related charges. He was re-arrested sometime in mid-March and does not appear to have an attorney or any pending federal cases, suggesting he may have been picked up simply to be deported. Court records indicate he has four children who reside legally in the United States.

Prison staff at risk

The BOP and Justice Department declined to comment on the man’s case and the situation at the MDC. Sanon confirmed that the infected man at the MDC was a new arrival at the facility, and said he showed no symptoms while being screened during the intake process. As of last week, Sanon said, new prisoners continue to arrive at the MDC and be shipped out to other facilities around the U.S., as well as transported to federal courts in New York.

“The movement throughout the BOP needs to stop," Sanon said. “Somebody has to take initiative to stop spreading the disease around. Once it affects the jails, it’ll affect correctional officers, it’ll go outside to the community. We need a standstill as far as movement is concerned to get this contained.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said last week that its agents will focus on “public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds,” but emphasized that arrests and deportations would not be halted. Other types of law enforcement have continued at the federal level, leading to more inmates coming into the federal system, potentially bringing the coronavirus with them.

David Patton, executive director and chief attorney for the Federal Defenders, which provides free legal services to federal defendants, called for U.S. Attorney’s offices in New York and around the U.S. to halt “business as usual” during the outbreak for public safety reasons.

“Staff are in and out of those facilities,” Patton said. “They’re not walled off from society. What goes on in there is going to impact society more broadly, including when we have a significant number of people who become severely ill. They are going to contribute to overcrowding at the hospitals.”

In a press conference Friday, Attorney General William Barr lauded the BOP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, and announced that he has directed the agency to begin evaluating which prisoners might be eligible for early release to home confinement, saying the agency has 10,000 inmates over age 60 currently in custody. But he cautioned that a third of those are incarcerated for violent or sex offenses and might not qualify. An analysis by the Marshall Project found that Barr’s criteria for release is extremely narrow and tends to favor white prisoners.

The prisoner at Oakdale who wrote to VICE News said he’s nearing the end of his sentence for a non-violent crime and has applied for early release, in part because he has asthma and is afraid of catching the coronavirus. That process, however, tends to take months even when prison staff isn’t overwhelmed with a deadly outbreak.

Morris said that with so many correctional officers calling in sick, he and others are being pressed to work double-overtime shifts, with several clocking over 24 hours straight on the job. Asked what happens if too many workers at Oakdale fall ill and whether the BOP would bring in people from another facility, he replied, “We are asking the very same question."

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)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.