“They’ve got us cooped up,” Pelaggi, 54, who is serving time at the Oakdale federal prison in rural Louisiana for drug offenses, wrote to his sister last week. “We are going to die here.”
As the coronavirus pandemic seeps into the 122-facility federal prison system, the Oakdale prison has become the deadliest. In the last three weeks, nine inmates in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system have died of covid-19; six of them were imprisoned at Oakdale. More than 100 Oakdale inmates are under quarantine, and four staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The virus is festering at Oakdale as older inmates and prisoners with serious medical conditions live among the general population. Prisoners, fearing they may be abandoned in an isolation cell and left for dead, are not reporting their symptoms. Prison staff walk the grounds, often without masks and gloves, failing to observe social distancing with either inmates or themselves.
In interviews, emails and text messages with The Washington Post, 57 correctional officers, inmates and family members said they fear the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ mishandling of the pandemic at Oakdale and in prisons across the nation will lead to a massive death toll that extends outside the prisons and into the community.
Inmates say fellow prisoners at Oakdale — assigned to clean sinks, toilets and showers — are ignoring their job assignments because they fear the work will kill them.
Inmates must have a fever and other covid-19 symptoms to be placed in isolation, staff and inmates say. Once they are there, bureau officials acknowledge that only those ill enough to be taken to a hospital are tested for the coronavirus. Thus, a full accounting of how many inmates have contracted covid-19 might never be known.
“They are keeping us in the dark; they are keeping the community in the dark about what is happening here,” said Corey Trammel, a correctional officer at Oakdale who is union president. “The bureau needs to be educating our staff more on what to do. I don’t have any answers for my staff. I’m going on the Internet to figure out what to do.”
Prison workers across the country say wardens are forcing staff who have had sustained contact with infected inmates to report to work — even when they have a doctor’s order telling them to self-quarantine. In one case, The Post reviewed an email from an associate warden showing that he ordered correctional officers who had been exposed to an infected inmate to return to work.
The union representing the officers filed a complaint Monday with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration against the Bureau of Prisons, saying officials were “proliferating the spread of a known and deadly contagion both within our prison system and to our surrounding communities. The agency’s actions and inactions are expected to result in death and severe health complications and/or possible life-long disabilities.”
In less than a month, the Bureau of Prisons has gone from having one reported case of covid-19 to, as of Friday afternoon, having at least 318 federal inmates and 163 prison staff diagnosed with the disease.
In response to the mounting panic, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr last week directed federal prison officials to accelerate and expand early release programs for the sickest inmates.
The initiative is narrowly focused. Barr asked prison officials to prioritize three prisons with the highest infection rates, including Oakdale. Inmates who are released will be confined to their homes for the rest of their prison terms.
The Oakdale prison is a major employer in a city with fewer than 8,000 residents about 200 miles northwest of New Orleans. Inmates are housed in two cream-colored buildings. Both are low-security facilities; one includes a minimum-security camp where offenders live in an area without fencing or barbed wire.
Inmates say correctional officers are ordering them to stay six feet apart, but most of them are living in dormitory-style settings with 100 or more men. A handful of sinks, showers and toilets are shared by all. Bunk beds are set about three feet apart.
“You can’t tell us to social distance and throw six men in a 15-by-15-foot cubicle,” a 49-year-old inmate said in a phone interview from the prison. The inmate at first spoke on the record, but called back, asking to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation from prison staff. “They won’t let us outside. People are sick, coughing, not able to breathe, and we are piled on top of each other. I can’t believe the crap I have to witness each day. I’m mad; I’m terrified.”
In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons defended its response to the pandemic at Oakdale, saying it “moved swiftly” to “mitigate exposure and spread of COVID-19 at the facility” by placing sick inmates in quarantine, limiting movement of inmates inside the prison and suspending inmate visits with friends and family.
“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families and the communities we live and work in,” the statement said. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”
Dispute about masks
Inmates across the country say staffers are bringing the disease to them. Officers say working in proximity to sick inmates has caused them to carry covid-19 home to their families and communities.
Joe Rojas, southeast regional vice president for the Council of Prison Locals, said prison staff are being denied the most basic forms of protection.
Masks are not being provided in a majority of facilities, Rojas said. Every day, he receives text messages, emails and calls from officers who say they have purchased masks on their own, but when they attempt to wear them, prison officials are ordering them to remove the protective gear.
“I informed him that I have an elderly mother (74 years old) with respiratory issues [as] well as my sister who had an organ transplant six months ago both living with me,” an officer wrote in one of eight messages Rojas shared with The Post.
In another note sent to Rojas, an officer said his supervisor told him to remove his mask because it “may incite panic among the inmates and other staff.”
The bureau disputed officers’ accounts in a statement provided to The Post last week, saying “an ample amount of supply is on hand and ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary.”
However, on Monday the bureau acknowledged in a memo to executive prison staff that masks have not been distributed at all facilities, but that staff and inmates would soon receive masks.
A thousand miles from Oakdale, another wave of coronavirus illnesses and deaths is spreading in the federal prison system at a facility in northern Ohio that houses over 2,400 male inmates.
Since last week, three inmates at Elkton prison have died and nine are on ventilators at local hospitals. Prison staff say the rapid spread of the virus has jammed prison phone lines with panicked relatives calling to check on their loved ones.
Fueling the alarm was a 20-minute profanity-laced video shot by an unidentified Elkton prisoner that was posted online Sunday, in which he repeatedly pleaded from his crowded prison cell for outside intervention.
“Pray, whatever you all got to do. Whatever you all got to do,” he said, shooting video from the bottom level of a metal-framed bunk bed. “I need you to help — spread the word. People shouldn’t have to die like this.”
The inmate wore a white paper mask; other prisoners at Oakdale and Elkton have received similar masks. He periodically pulled back brown bedding that was tucked over the heads of several fellow inmates in his cell. He said they were sick with coronavirus symptoms but had not been placed in quarantine. Similar claims have been made by prisoners at Oakdale.
“Everybody in this unit is sick with this s---. There is no protection for the inmates; they are literally going to let you die,” he said.
Joseph Mayle, union president for officers at Elkton, disputed the inmates’ claims, saying prisoners with symptoms are pulled from the general population and that 80 inmates are in isolation.
However, Mayle said Elkton is one of the prisons where staff is being told to report to work, even after they been exposed to the virus on the job, and even after staff secure doctor’s orders telling them to self-quarantine.
“We are professional law enforcement officers, we want to come to work,” Mayle said. “We knew when we took this job it would be dangerous, that we could get stabbed or killed, but at no time did we think we could bring something home that could kill our family members. That wasn’t part of the deal.”
Against the odds
At an old military hospital in Fort Worth — which now functions as one of seven medical centers in the Bureau of Prisons — 61-year-old Kimberli Himmel is worried about her odds.
Of the eight inmates who have so far died of covid-19, the Bureau of Prisons says each had “long-term, pre-existing medical conditions.”
Himmel — diagnosed with kidney failure and stage 2 breast cancer — is an inmate at Carswell Federal Medical Center, where the sickest women in the federal prison system are serving time. Barr’s directive to expand early release programs does not yet directly apply to Carswell, or to any of the other six medical centers.
In the unit where Himmel lives, she said there are about 65 women. More than half of them are 55 and older. Almost all of suffer from kidney failure or cancer, or like Himmel, they are sick with both.
“If this virus is introduced into this unit it will kill over half of us,” Himmel, who was convicted of bank fraud, wrote in an email to The Post.
The next day, Himmel learned through local media reports that a 30-year-old pregnant woman from her prison had been rushed to a hospital, where an emergency C-section was performed. A covid-19 test on Saturday revealed she is positive for the virus.
The next day, Himmel emailed her attorney: “GET ME OUT OF HERE NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!” He has filed a petition for early release, which is pending with the bureau.
Regina Warren, the union president for correctional officers at the prison, said the incident has exposed how “reckless” the bureau is being during the pandemic. Although the Bureau of Prisons says exposed staff are being told to self-quarantine at home, that is not what happened to the officers who accompanied the pregnant inmate to the hospital.
Warren said they were ordered to report back to work two days later — before the covid-19 test was complete — and pointed to an internal email as proof.
“After thorough review, the clinical director has determined these staff do not need to be quarantined and subsequently has advised their direct supervisor they are able to return to duty immediately,” Raul Campos Jr., the associate warden at Carswell, wrote in an email obtained by The Post.
Warren said the two officers refused to return to work and on Saturday — once the positive test result was known — the bureau notified them that they should instead remain in quarantine. “The bureau is not following the guidelines they have sent out to the public,” she said.
Sue Allison, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said she could not comment on specific cases involving officers who may have been ordered to return to work after being exposed. She said the bureau is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which says the need to self-quarantine will depend on how long a staff member was exposed and how close their contact was with an infected person.
In interviews and emails, dozens of inmates and staff at nine prisons in the system said that although the Bureau of Prisons has announced “lockdowns” in facilities with outbreaks and “modified lockdowns” in prisons not yet affected, inmates continue to come in close contact with one another every day.
Prisoners are confined to their units or cells for most of the day, but in most facilities they continue to line up to pick up meals and medication.
Inmate visitation has been stopped. But prison staff continue to cycle in and out.
Kirk Brannan, a 66-year-old former inmate at Oakdale who was released last week, said officers who work in the building where inmates developed fatal covid-19 illnesses frequently walked through and sometimes worked in the camp, where he was serving a 36-month sentence for bank fraud.
“There was cross contamination across the entire facility,” said Brannan, who has high blood pressure and was one of the first to be sent to home confinement because of the covid-19 outbreak. “There is no way, at this point, that everyone hasn’t been exposed.”
Brannan said few of the safety protocols Oakdale put in place prevented or limited contamination and some might have caused its spread.
When Oakdale was put on a modified lockdown two weeks ago, Brannan said the “chow hall” was closed. He and other inmates at the minimum security camp were put to work, packing sack lunches of peanut butter and bologna sandwiches for the rest of the prisoners so they could be served the meals in their cells to limit contact.
Brannan said about 20 inmates stood shoulder-to-shoulder. No one was wearing a mask. No one had been tested.
“People are coughing, but they can’t cover their mouth in time because it is an assembly line,” he said. “Everyone is moving fast, throwing carrot and celery sticks into a bag, or condiments into a bag. It was crazy. It was very efficient, but was it sanitary? No way.”
Julie Tate, Alice Crites and Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.