At least 60 inmates at the Oakdale prison are in quarantine and an unknown number of staff are self-quarantining at home, said Corey Trammel, a union representative for correctional officers at the 1,700-inmate facility about 110 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.
“It’s been simultaneous, just people getting sick back to back to back to back,” Trammel said. “We don’t know how to protect ourselves. Staff are working 36-hour shifts — there’s no way we can keep going on like this.”
The prison bureau is not releasing the names of other infected inmates or staff, citing medical and privacy concerns. Jones complained of a “persistent cough” on March 19, the prison bureau said, and was transported to a hospital where he was diagnosed and placed on a ventilator.
The prison bureau also said Jones had “long-term, preexisting medical conditions” that increased his risk of developing the disease. Jones was convicted in 2017 of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine within 1,000 feet of a junior college. He was serving a 27-year sentence.
Louisiana ranks 10th highest among states for reported coronavirus cases, with more than 3,300 people who have tested positive and another 137 who have died, government reports show. A week before the Oakdale prison had its first positive case, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) issued a stay-at-home order and closed all public schools.
Trammel said the prison bureau has been slow to respond to the crisis across the country. The bureau last week banned family and friends from visiting inmates, but the officers’ union had lobbied the federal prison system to take this action for weeks to keep the disease from infiltrating the prison walls.
The Bureau of Prisons updates confirmed coronavirus cases most afternoons on its website, but there has been a lag between cases reported by the officers’ union and prison officials. As of Sunday afternoon, the prison system had only confirmed 14 inmates and 13 staff have tested positive.
At Oakdale, Trammel said staff also asked prison officials — weeks before the first coronavirus case — to shut down a prison labor program within the facility, where more than 100 prisoners make inmate clothing. The program, Trammel said, was not shut down until after the first inmate tested positive.
The Bureau of Prisons — which operates 122 prisons with more than 175,000 inmates — did not immediately respond Sunday to a request for comment. Oakdale Warden Rod Myers could also not be reached for comment.
Trammel said he asked the prison bureau on Saturday to send specialized medical teams to the facility to help with staffing shortages. He’s also asking for hazard pay, which would increase their salaries by 25 percent as they respond to the crisis. And he’s asking for more robust protective gear, including masks with respirators and perhaps face shields.
“We are bringing inmates to the hospitals and are staying right beside them around the clock,” Trammel said. “All we have is these itty bitty masks — a piece of towel over our faces — and nurses are coming into the room for a few minutes and they are all suited up.”
He also said he believes all Oakdale prison staff have now been exposed to the virus. Days ago, he interacted with an inmate who had a fever and still doesn’t know if the prisoner has received a test.
“We should all be in quarantine,” Trammel said. “We should not be going in to spread this monster of a virus.”
Prison reform advocates, who have been pushing for the early release of elderly and severely ill inmates due to covid-19, said the death of a federal inmate illustrates why government officials need to be doing a better job of protecting people like Jones.
“The conditions and reality of incarceration make prisons and jails tinderboxes for the spread of disease,” said Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Justice Division. “A prison sentence should not become a death sentence. Our leaders must immediately take steps to release those identified by the CDC as most vulnerable to covid-19. With every hour of inaction that passes, the greater the human tragedy.”