Six chronically-ill inmates at a troubled federal prison in Louisiana are suing for their release, claiming that authorities have been unable to manage a coronavirus outbreak that is “ravaging the facility” where five prisoners have died.
The lawsuit, filed Monday on the inmates’ behalf by the ACLU, asserted that recent Justice Department efforts to expedite releases from the Oakdale compound and at prisons in Connecticut and Ohio have not moved fast enough to identify medically-compromised and other vulnerable inmates as infections have mounted within the federal prison system.
Without court intervention, the documents state that “devastating, and in many
cases deadly, irreparable harm will befall incarcerated persons, facility staff, and the community.”
The six prisoners named in the lawsuit range in age from 35 to 58 and have been diagnosed with a range of ailments, including diabetes, asthma, hypertension, acute pancreatitis and other respiratory conditions, making them vulnerable to the virus. Of the 1,800 inmates housed in facilities at Oakdale, the lawsuit states that nearly 750 could be similarly at risk.
“Beyond the general public health concerns presented by the COVID-19 pandemic,
persons incarcerated at Oakdale face a particularly acute threat of illness, permanent injury, and death,” the inmates claim.
Louisiana has been hit particularly hard by the virus, with more than 10,000 cases and more than 350 deaths.
Noting the conditions at Oakdale and at prisons in Ohio and Connecticut, Attorney General William Barr Friday urged the expedited release of vulnerable inmates to home confinement.
“We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities, including the Federal Correctional Institution Oakdale (Louisiana), Danbury (Connecticut) and Elkton (Ohio),” Barr said. “We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement when appropriate to move vulnerable inmates out these institutions.”
On Monday, the attorney general also directed federal prosecutors to consider the risks posed by the virus when weighing detention of suspects prior to trial.
“You should now consider the medical risks associated with individuals being remanded into federal custody during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Barr said in memorandum to the country’s 94 U.S. attorneys.
“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. It also presents risk to the individual being remanded into custody — risk that is particularly acute for individuals who are vulnerable to a serious infection under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” the attorney general wrote.
The Bureau of Prisons, meanwhile, said it had “immediately” acted on the attorney general’s Friday directive by reviewing all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors, starting with inmates at Oakdale, Danbury, Elkton and other facilities.
“We have already placed 566 inmates in home confinement since the release of Attorney General Barr’s original (March 26) memo,” the agency said, referring to the attorney general’s initial directive to expand home confinement for inmates across the bureau’s 122 facilities to avoid a larger outbreak.
In Oakdale, Mayor Gene Paul said that he spoke Saturday to prison warden J.P. Young who described conditions at the central Louisiana facility as “really bad.”
Paul said he was concerned both for the prison conditions there and any plan to release inmates into the local community.
“If they are planning to just open the gates and let people out into the community then I have some concern with that,” Paul said.
Anticipating the threat to inmates in prisons and jails, state and local officials across the country have released thousands of potentially vulnerable prisoners to reduce the risk of spread. Lawmakers and civil rights advocates had been urging the federal government to follow that lead.
Attorneys for the prisoners, however, said Barr’s directive does not include a timetable for identifying and moving at-risk inmates.
“We share the department’s goal of stopping COVID-19 in its tracks, but are deeply concerned that relief is coming too slowly,” ACLU senior staff attorney Somil Trivedi said Monday. “We must act now to avoid the worst-case scenario here.”