WASHINGTON – Prisoner rights advocates accused the federal Bureau of Prisons of “slow walking" the release of inmates at a Louisiana lockup where the coronavirus has killed six prisoners and infected dozens of others.
The American Civil Liberties Union urged a federal judge on Monday to release hundreds of vulnerable inmates at FCC Oakdale to home confinement, calling the rural facility a tinderbox “ready to explode.”
Jail officials deemed several dozen prisoners “potentially eligible" for release. But the ACLU described the government's plan as “far too little, far too late.”
As of Sunday night, 38 inmates and 17 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 at the Louisiana prison. There have been six deaths there since March 21.
“The prison has apparently succeeded in releasing no one except to hospitals and mortuaries,” the nonprofit argued in new court filings.
The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It previously has said its case managers are “urgently reviewing all inmates to determine which ones” are eligible for home confinement.
Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons earlier this month to increase the use of home confinement and expedite the release of eligible high-risk inmates, beginning at three prisons identified as coronavirus hot spots, including Oakdale.
“We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions,” Barr said in the April 3 memo to the prison system’s director.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status last week, saying conditions at Oakdale violated inmates' Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment. More than 1,800 prisoners are housed at the prison compound nearly 200 miles (320 kilometers) from New Orleans.
Congressional leaders and prison advocates have been pressing the Justice Department for weeks to release at-risk inmates ahead of a potential outbreak, arguing that the public health guidance to stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from other people is nearly impossible behind bars.
The Bureau of Prisons said last week that it had increased the use of home confinement by over 40% since March. The agency said an additional 566 inmates had been placed in home confinement since Barr first issued a directive to increase its use in late March.
But the ACLU has criticized the Bureau of Prisons as moving too slowly, identifying fewer than 70 prisoners for potential release.
“The Bureau of Prisons’ plan to review less than 100 of the men currently incarcerated at Oakdale is dangerous and immoral,” said Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.
“It does nothing to achieve social distancing, which public health experts agree is crucial for containing the outbreak,” Trivedi added. “Men are sleeping three, four, five to a cell, less than 6 feet away, and many are reporting that cellmates are coughing through the night.”
The ACLU is not alone in sounding the alarm about the outbreak at Oakdale. Both of Louisiana's Republican senators, John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy, and Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., wrote a letter last week urging Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal to take “immediate action," and suggesting the pandemic caught the bureau off guard.
Carvajal defended his agency's handling of the crisis over the weekend. “I don’t think anybody was ready for this COVID,” he told CNN, “so we’re dealing with it just as well as anybody else, and I’d be proud to say we’re doing pretty good.”
At Oakdale, one of the hardest-hit federal prisons in the country, the Bureau of Prisons said it has taken “numerous steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” including by isolating symptomatic inmates and quarantining those exposed to positive cases.
Prison officials said in a court filing that inmates who are exhibiting symptoms are placed in a special isolation unit, where they are tested for the virus and held alone in cells. Other inmates who have been exposed to someone who tested positive are held in quarantine, officials said.
Inmate orderlies “have been deployed on a 24-hour basis to disinfect" the jail, cleaning telephones and computers after each use.
“All inmates are also being monitored by medical staff daily, including temperature checks,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen King wrote in a court filing.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report from Washington.