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'They're All Really Afraid': Coronavirus Spreads In Federal Prisons

The federal prison in Oakdale, La., pictured in 2006, is grappling with a series of COVID-19 cases.
Rogelio V. Solis
The federal prison in Oakdale, La., pictured in 2006, is grappling with a series of COVID-19 cases.

Updated at 9:58 a.m. ET

Federal prisons are wrestling with the rapid spread of the coronavirus at more than two dozen facilities across the country in an outbreak that has already claimed the lives of at least seven inmates and infected almost 200 more, as well as 63 staff.

One of the hardest-hit so far is the Federal Correctional Complex in Oakdale, La., located about a three-hour drive west of New Orleans. It's home to two low-security prisons and a minimum security camp, which all told house some 2,000 inmates.

"They're all really afraid," said Arjeane Thompson, whose boyfriend, Brandon Livas, is an inmate at the Oakdale camp. "They feel like they're sitting ducks, really just kind of waiting to get infected because it's getting out of control over there pretty quickly."

Their worries are well founded. Five inmates have died at Oakdale. Another 22 have tested positive, as have four staff, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

While hard-hit, Oakdale is not the only federal correctional facility struggling with the virus. Nearly 30 facilities in the bureau system have confirmed cases among inmates and staff.

The virus' expanding reach has prompted the Bureau of Prisons, which runs 122 federal correctional facilities nationwide, to implement a 14-day lockdown to try to slow the spread.

Limited social distancing

For many inmates, a lockdown means being largely confined to their cells to try to maximize social distancing, as much as is feasible in a lockup.

But for Livas and the 140 or so others in his facility at Oakdale, there are no cells. The inmates sleep in two barracks-style buildings in bunk beds set about 3 feet apart.

"They have not done anything to isolate anybody here! At all! People are still coughing every night man!" Livas told NPR in an email. "There are a bunch of sickly people in this camp! I just pray something happen soon!"

Livas has an old mask he kept from a cleaning job he did when he first arrived at Oakdale, according to Thompson, so he's been sleeping in that to try to protect himself. He also tries to sit outside during the day as much as possible because "that's his only way to stay away from people, kind of," she said.

Livas said he is diabetic and has acute pancreatitis — chronic health conditions that could make him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. That only compounds his and Thompson's fears.

Carla Lunceford is in the same situation. She worries about her son, Donald Fugitt, who is an inmate in another part of Oakdale.

"He's worried and I'm worried because Donald has a birth defect," she said. "One of his lungs is smaller than the other. He's had some asthma problems from that."

She says she peppers him with questions about what precautions are being taken to protect him and the other inmates.

He has told her that he fears catching the virus from the guards, who rotate among all parts of the Oakdale complex.

"I asked him, are they wearing gloves or a mask? And he said that you might see a CO with a mask on for a couple hours and then you'll see them later and they don't have it on anymore," Lunceford said, referring to correctional officers or guards.

As late as March 29 — a day after the first Oakdale inmate died from COVID-19 — Fugitt and some 30 other inmates were still allowed to congregate together in the common area in their part of the lockup.

"He said everybody is touching everything," Lunceford said. "And I asked him, 'Have you all had a class on that? Had they come out and talk to you about what to do, what not to do? What can help protect yourself?' And he said, 'No.' "

As the toll from the virus has mounted, the Justice Department has taken a series of steps to try to ease the burden on the system.

The latest came last Friday, when Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to shift more inmates to home confinement and speed up the release of high-risk inmates — particularly those at Oakdale and two other hard-hit facilities.

The bureau says it has moved 566 inmates to home confinement since March 26. It adds that it is immediately reviewing all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors to determine who meets the criteria set out by the attorney general.

That has provided a glimmer of hope to some inmates, including Livas and Fugitt, of getting out of Oakdale and, hopefully, the virus' reach.

Pressure on prison staff

But the inmates aren't the only ones at Oakdale grappling with fears of infection. The prison staff is also scared right now.

Ronald Morris is a maintenance worker at Oakdale and the president of one of the local prison workers' unions.

"We are the epicenter of the pandemic for the bureau," Morris said. "This virus is no respecter of persons. It doesn't care if you're a staff member or an inmate. And that's the dangerous nature of what we're dealing with."

According to the union's tally, Oakdale is even harder hit than the bureau's statistics suggest.

The level of anxiety and fear is ramping up daily.

Morris says that as of Monday, 26 inmates had tested positive, including the five who died. Six are in intensive care, four of them on ventilators.

On the staff side, Morris says there are 21 confirmed cases — including one individual who's been hospitalized — and another 17 who are waiting on test results.

"The level of anxiety and fear is ramping up daily," he said. "We've just seen what's going on and hearing what's going on with more and more staff going out makes it an incredible amount of pressure just to come to work and to show up and do your job."

Taken together, the circumstances are already straining Oakdale's staff.

"Some are working doubles every day. Some are working 12-hour shifts. Some are working up to 40 hours straight," Morris said.

He's no exception. He spoke to NPR late one evening from the hospital, where he was filling in for a colleague until midnight, before turning around to work again the following morning at 6 a.m.

Morris said he believes he's been exposed to the virus; he estimates that 80% of the prison staff has. Some employees have stopped coming to work out of concerns about their safety, he said.

Morris said his biggest fear is catching COVID-19 and bringing it home to his wife and three kids.

To try to prevent that, he said, every day when he gets home he kicks his boots off outside and sprays them with Lysol. He gets undressed in his utility room and throws his clothes directly into the washing machine, which his wife turns on immediately. He then runs straight into the shower to clean off.

But he's also worried about possibly taking the virus into his community — a fear that appears to be reciprocated.

Morris recounted walking into the local dollar store in his prison uniform on a recent lunch break to buy a pair of reading glasses to replace his broken ones.

When he got to the register to pay, he said, the cashier backed out of the checkout aisle and rang him up from a register one aisle over.

"When I was swiping my card and I kind of laughed at myself and I was like, 'Damn, even they know it's not good to be around us,' " Morris said. "It was comical, but it's really not, you know, because that's how bad it is out there and people know that."

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.