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Virus Puts a Prison Under Siege

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/7/2020 Sadie Gurman, Zusha Elinson, Deanna Paul
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A Louisiana prison guard sat alongside a sick inmate for more than an hour inside a van and his hospital room, told by a supervisor he didn’t need a mask despite the prisoner’s severe cough and other telltale signs of Covid-19.

Within 10 days, the 49-year-old inmate, Patrick Jones, was dead from the coronavirus. The officer, Aubrey Melder, was back at work, having been told days earlier to return, without quarantining, to his duties inside the low-security prison in Oakdale, a lawyer for the union representing prisons employees said.

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The prison, 200 miles west of New Orleans, has emerged as a focal point of the coronavirus pandemic inside the nation’s lockups. Five prisoners have died there from the disease, the most of any federal prison. At least 25 inmates and 21 workers have tested positive, including seven prisoners who are in intensive care and four on ventilators; two employees are also hospitalized, according to data from officials at the facility. The actual figure is almost certainly higher as there is little testing.

Interviews with inmates and their families, corrections officers and local officials show a prison under siege by an invisible enemy. Inside cells holding six men each, feverish, coughing inmates at times weren’t separated from their healthy cellmates, but instead lay in their bunks an arm’s length away. Some fashioned masks from their own clothing. Inmates say they can hear coughing throughout the halls every night.

“Our sentences have turned into death sentences,” Sterling Rivers, a 32-year-old from Tennessee serving time at Oakdale for a drug conspiracy conviction said in an interview.

The crisis at Oakdale foreshadows what has started to play out at other jails and prisons across the country, where 2.2 million individuals are held, including more than 175,000 in the federal system. Health experts have long warned that the cramped quarters and often unhygienic living conditions give contagion free rein.

Mr. Melder, who hasn’t experienced symptoms, declined to comment through a representative. Within the federal system, inmates and their guards say the unique risks they face as a result of tight spaces, short staffing and strained health-care systems are intensified by a lack of access to protective masks and other gear, faulty thermometers and insufficient cleaning supplies.

Adding to the challenge, nearly 5,000 inmates in the federal system are over 65, according to the Bureau of Prisons, putting them at greater risk experts say.

Eight inmates had died in federal prisons from the virus as of Sunday, including three at a low-security prison in Elkton, Ohio. Nationwide in the federal system, another 138 inmates and 59 employees had tested positive, according to figures from the Bureau of Prisons, which operates Oakdale and all federal lockups. State and local detention facilities are experiencing similar struggles.

The bureau, criticized for weeks by staff and inmates as slow to respond, said it has been implementing a plan to stem the spread in phases that have included suspending visitation, limiting transfers of inmates between prisons and holding newly arriving prisoners in quarantine for 14 days. On April 1, bureau officials took the rare step of imposing a nationwide policy of keeping inmates in their cells and quarters all day with very limited exceptions.

At Oakdale, a team of eight medical workers arrived March 31. They began handing out paper masks to some inmates, and the doctors last week started regularly checking temperatures, something prisons officials said is now being done nationally to spot sick inmates sooner.

In response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, the bureau sent a four-page reply broadly outlining the measures it has taken at Oakdale and throughout its 122 facilities nationwide. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in our facilities,” the bureau said.

But it didn’t answer some specific questions, including why Mr. Melder, who escorted Mr. Jones to the hospital, wasn’t given a mask and was told to return to work, according to union officials. Those details are part of a lawsuit filed last month against the Trump administration on behalf of four federal corrections employees belonging to the American Federation of Government Employees union; they are demanding hazardous pay for being exposed to the virus while at work.

Attorney General William Barr, who has said the prisons are operating under a “rigorous set of protocols," on Friday ordered officials to speed release to home confinement eligible, high-risk inmates at Oakdale and two other prisons hard hit by the virus. The bureau said it was “urgently reviewing all inmates” to determine who could be released.

At Oakdale, prisoners and corrections officials said those measures were haphazardly imposed and came too late.

“Pray this don’t get in your joint,” said Corey Trammel, a union representative who works there.

The prison has run out of tests, union officials said. State health officials have advised that anyone showing symptoms should be considered to be infected. Three-quarters of the 980 inmates are quarantined, the union says. Running out of space to hold them, officials constructed at least six tents in the recreation yard in recent days to house inmates who have been symptom-free for two weeks after possible exposure, prison officials said.

Outside, family members are unable to get answers about their loved ones. Inside, inmates are pleading to be released.

“The way they got us living here, I emailed my loved ones today and let them know that I apologize for everything that I caused them, told them to tell my kids that I love them,” said Rodney Harrison, a 39-year-old Oakdale inmate who is months away from completing his sentence for a drug conviction.

Officials aren’t certain how Covid-19 came to the prison; Louisiana is one of the nation’s hot spots for the disease. But since it arrived, officers and inmates say, prison officials have been slow to identify and isolate sick inmates. Mr. Melder isn’t the only guard to have returned to work after being exposed, officers who work there said. Early on, some new inmates were put into cells with potentially sick ones, they said. Common areas like bathrooms, each shared by a hundred or more men, still aren’t being frequently cleaned with bleach. “There’s guys huffing and spitting in there and urine on the floor,” said Mr. Rivers.

Inmates said they have tried to clean their cells, but that the prison wouldn’t give them bleach because it can be lethal if mixed with other cleaners. Officials at the bureau said they provide inmates with “cleaning products as needed to clean their cells,” and that it sent three memos to inmates “reminding them of the importance of good hand washing and hygiene.”

The disease’s spread has been compounded by other pressures. Guards say they are hesitant to report symptoms because they don’t want to have to use sick time to quarantine for 14 days. Inmates say they are reluctant because they don’t want to go into isolation or force cellmates into quarantine.

Residents of the town of Oakdale, population about 7,500, fear an outbreak will spill outside the gates of the prison complex that has long been a source of employment.

“Most of Oakdale has come in contact with someone that’s worked there, whether it’s at the grocery store, or the gas station or whatever,” said Mayor Gene Paul. The wife and daughter of Mr. Melder work for him at city hall. Mr. Paul said he immediately sent them home upon learning that Mr. Melder had been exposed.

The complex consists of two minimum-security prisons and a prison camp, which has less security and dormitory-style living arrangements; more than 1,800 inmates are housed at the Oakdale federal correctional institution compound. The outbreak so far has been confined to one of the prisons, FCI Oakdale I.

President Trump declared a state of emergency concerning the virus on March 13 amid mounting global concerns about a health crisis.

The Bureau of Prisons said it imposed “enhanced modified operations” at Oakdale on March 21. That meant limiting inmates’ movement and rotating them out of their cells in small groups for things like showers and meals, the bureau said.

That was two days after Mr. Jones, who was incarcerated on a drug conviction, went to the hospital on March 19 and more than a week after inmates began to get sick, inmates said.

The virus quickly advanced. By March 24, there were 12 inmates at a local hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, said Ronald Morris, president of the local union chapter.

Since Mr. Jones’ death, some officers have had shifts of up to 36 hours, and staff are steadily testing positive, Mr. Morris said. Guards get their temperatures taken each day upon arrival and are given a mask and gloves, but union officials said many weren’t being encouraged by the bureau to self-quarantine after exposure to a potentially infected inmates.

The Bureau of Prisons said it was trying to assign employees to the same posts, rather than rotating them, to limit spread of the virus.

Families of inmates say they have struggled to make contact with their loved ones during this fearful time, though bureau officials said Oakdale inmates were still being allowed to use phones.

Pamela Simmons was concerned about her husband, Delanor, 49, who is serving time at Oakdale for drugs. On March 21, Mr. Simmons had texted to say that he felt weak and was feverish. He said he was going to see the prison doctor.

Normally they communicated daily, but for two weeks she didn’t hear anything and the prison wouldn’t give her any information, Ms. Simmons, a nurse in Lawrenceville, Ga., said.

Finally on Friday, Mr. Simmons called to say he had been in quarantine. He didn’t have the virus. “I was ecstatic,” she said.

Write to Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com, Zusha Elinson at zusha.elinson@wsj.com and Deanna Paul at deanna.paul@wsj.com

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