The federal Bureau of Prisons is locking all its 146,000 inmates in their cells for the next two weeks in an unparalleled effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as the focus shifts to a Louisiana compound, where two inmates have died and nearly 20 others remain hospitalized.
The compound, known as FCC Oakdale, has emerged as ground zero in the federal prison system’s struggle to contain coronavirus behind bars. The situation there is so dire that the local health department told the federal government there was no need to test inmates anymore for the coronavirus. Those showing symptoms should be presumed to have it.
On Wednesday, the agency confirmed that a second inmate at Oakdale, 43-year-old Nicholas Rodriquez, had died. Just days earlier, another man, serving a 27-year drug sentence, died at a hospital from the coronavirus. Officials said both men had serious, long-term underlying health conditions. They are the only deaths so far in federal prisons, but state and local lockups have seen deaths.
So far, 11 Oakdale inmates have tested positive, 19 others are in the hospital and suspected of having the disease, 32 are in isolation with symptoms and 82 have been quarantined because of possible exposure, according to local union president Ronald Morris.
In addition, 13 staff members have tested positive, one is hospitalized in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Alexandria, about 50 minutes away, and about 16 others are out of work awaiting test results.
“It is a mess here,” Morris said.
The Bureau of Prisons said the uptick is “consistent with the surge of positive cases in Louisiana” and because there were so many cases at the prison, local health officials have recommended not testing anyone else who shows COVID-19 symptoms and instead presume they are positive.
Louisiana has emerged as a hot spot for the virus, with the death toll at 273. The number of confirmed cases grew 23 per cent overnight, topping 6,400, according to the latest figures. About 23 per cent are hospitalized. Nationwide, there are more than 200,000 cases.
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“What’s happening in Oakdale is a tragic and avoidable example of what happens when officials fail to heed the advice of public health experts who have warned from the beginning that prisons and jails would become dangerous breeding grounds for this disease,” said Katie Schwartzmann, legal director of the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union. “This should be a wakeup call to state and local officials that this is an imminent threat to public health that must be addressed immediately.”
The situation at Oakdale is fueling fear among inmates and staff members in the rest of the Bureau of Prisons system that the virus could spread just as rapidly at any of the other 121 correctional facilities, though the rate of infection compared with outside prison is low. Health officials have been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of epidemics in jails and prisons, which are ideal environments for virus outbreaks.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.