The low-security prison located 100 miles outside of Baton Rouge has become the epicenter of the viral pandemic in the nation’s federal prison system since the first inmate in US custody died there last month. As of Sunday, 22 current inmates had tested positive for the virus — the most confirmed cases out of all 122 federal prisons.
The Bureau of Prisons has taken extreme measures to stem the spread of the virus behind bars, and Attorney General William Barr, who oversees the federal prison system, has singled out Oakdale as a facility where prison leadership should expedite early release programs to protect certain vulnerable inmates. But inmates and officials there say conditions remain unsafe.
Inmates named in the ACLU’s class-action lawsuit described having no access to hot water and soap, and a row of six showers shared by 125 people.
One inmate, a 35-year-old with “compromised lungs due to childhood asthma,” said that he sleeps in a room that holds 72 prisoners in such close proximity that he can touch his neighbors while lying in his own bed.
“We share the department’s goal of stopping COVID-19 in its tracks, but are deeply concerned that relief is coming too slowly. We must act now to avoid the worst-case scenario here,” Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said in a statement.
A Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman told CNN she could not comment on pending litigation.
On Friday, Barr told the Bureau of Prisons chief in a memo to maximize the use of early release programs at the Louisiana prison and a handful of other hard-hit facilities for certain eligible inmates, citing the “significant levels of infections.”
Three other inmates have died at a prison in Lisbon, Ohio, and 138 inmates, as well as 59 Bureau of Prisons employees, had confirmed cases of the virus on Sunday.
In their lawsuit, which was filed in Louisiana federal court, the ACLU asked a judge to step in and order the immediate release of inmates who fell under the class-action status, saying that Barr’s memo did not clearly define the group of inmates eligible for early release and lacked a concrete timeline.
Meanwhile, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said Monday that he was deploying up to 26 medical staff from the state’s National Guard to assist at FCI Elkton, the federal facility in Lisbon where three inmates died last week after contracting coronavirus.
DeWine, a Republican, said that an Ohio National Guard official he’d dispatched to survey the prison over the weekend had reported back that its medical staffing was operating at 50 percent.
“The guard came back to me as well as our health department came back and said ‘there is no doubt that this prison needs help,”http://rss.cnn.com/” DeWine said.
The federal prison system, which houses about 150,000 inmates across the country, moved to a state of near lockdown last week as the pandemic worsened. Inmates are currently being confined to their cells with limited exceptions for education and access to showers and phones.
Before that, the Bureau of Prisons had instituted a two-week quarantine for all inmates new to a facility, and placed a ban on most outside visitors.
On Monday, Barr directed federal prosecutors to consider refraining from holding certain people awaiting trial in detention, in a move that will likely further reduce the population of inmates vulnerable to the virus behind bars.
“Even with the extensive precautions we are currently taking, each time a new person is added to a jail, it presents at least some risk to the personnel who operate that facility and to the people incarcerated therein,” Barr wrote in a memo.
People arrested for federal crimes are typically housed in local or federal jails as their cases play out in court unless they are freed under conditions of a bail agreement.
In the memo Monday, Barr told prosecutors to expand bail opportunities for defendants who don’t pose a threat to the public, pose little risk of flight, and who are “clearly vulnerable to Covid-19 under CDC Guidelines.”