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.
The federal Bureau of Prisons is locking all of 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 three 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, officials said. Those showing symptoms should be presumed to have it.
On Wednesday, the agency confirmed that two inmates at Oakdale had died. They identified one as 43-year-old Nicholas Rodriquez and were still attempting to notify the second man's family Wednesday evening. Just days earlier, another man, serving a 27-year drug sentence, died at a hospital from the coronavirus. Officials said both that man and Rodriquez 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.
But Kevin Litten, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health, said officials did not tell the prison to stop testing prisoners. He said state officials advised the prison, in the absence of testing, to isolate prisoners with symptoms.
Louisiana has emerged as a hot spot for the virus, with the death toll at 273. The number of confirmed cases grew 23% overnight, topping 6,400, according to the latest figures. About 23% are hospitalized. Nationwide, there are more than 200,000 cases.
"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 wake-up 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.
On Wednesday, the Bureau of Prisons moved into a new phase of its coronavirus response plan: a nationwide lockdown. In an effort to slow the virus's spread, officers will lock all inmates in their cells for 14 days. The agency said in a statement that "to the extent practicable" inmates should still have access to services like mental health treatment and education programs.
Even as officials shift their focus to trying to combat a potential coronavirus epidemic, officers are continuing to face challenges of managing inmates and struggling with severe staffing shortages. Earlier this week, an inmate walked away from a minimum-security federal prison camp in Three Rivers, Texas. He's now wanted by the U.S. Marshals Service.
At Oakdale, some staff members are working 32 hours straight to fill the gaps, Morris said. The roster is being stretched even thinner because some officers have to be at the hospital to guard inmates under treatment.
The Bureau of Prisons said wardens could notify officials in Washington if they need additional staff members but the agency wouldn't say whether that's happened at Oakdale.
Correction officers, inmates, and advocates at different prisons around the U.S. have raised alarms about what they say is an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment and basic pandemic needs, like soap and hand sanitizer.
In a statement to the Associated Press last week, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal insisted that the agency had inventoried its cleaning, sanitation, and medical supplies and there were "ample supplies on hand and ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary." The agency had also ordered additional supplies, he said.
But Morris and others say there's a clear disconnect between Carvajal's insistence that the agency has enough personal protective gear in stock and the situation at the Louisiana prison complex.
Morris said poor planning left Oakdale with short supplies of things like N95 masks, gowns, and face shields. Only after staffers kept pestering supervisors for gear did the prison order 10,000 N95 masks that are supposed to be delivered this week, he said. The prison is also running low on hand sanitizer, with management telling staff it's having trouble finding some to purchase, he said.
At a prison camp in Pensacola, Florida, staff members went out and obtained their own masks to wear this week. But they were stopped and told by the warden that they couldn't wear them because it could incite panic among inmates and fellow staff members, a person familiar with the matter told the AP.
The person was not permitted to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The agency said whether officers could wear masks depends on several factors, including whether an institution has an active case and each employee's job description.