When coronavirus began ripping through the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, Senior Officer Aubrey Melder was on the front lines. On March 19, he transported a sick prisoner to the local community hospital for tests, spending six hours in close contact with the ailing man. The officer’s only protection for most of that time? A pair of gloves.
Melder expected to go into quarantine, especially after the prisoner’s test for COVID-19 came back positive on March 21, according to his union representatives. But within a day, the Bureau of Prison’s chief health officer in Washington ordered him back on the job, according to an email reviewed by The Marshall Project.
Her decision: Officers should work unless they showed symptoms. This contradicts the recommendations the Centers for Disease Control was giving for first responders and other frontline workers and the specialized guidance it issued a day later for prisons and jails, calling for people who have had close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 to isolate themselves at home for 14 days.
The email directive, shared with us by a corrections worker, helps explain why COVID-19 has been surging through the federal prison system. The prison agency’s official count of the infected as of April 3 was 91 prisoners and 50 staff, with the biggest outbreaks in Danbury, Connecticut; Oakdale; and Lompoc, California. But union officials say the toll is much higher, and note that at Oakdale, five prisoners have died—including the person Melder took to the hospital, Patrick Jones.
Melder, who is among a group of workers suing the federal government for hazard pay because of coronavirus, could not be reached for comment. His lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the Bureau of Prisons. Dr. Sylvie Cohen, the chief of occupational and employee health who sent the email to senior staff at Oakdale, declined through a spokesman to answer questions from The Marshall Project.
The union says the agency has failed to protect workers at its 122 facilities. Federal prisons have had so much trouble finding corrections officers that they have forced counselors, teachers and nurses to guard prisoners. The agency said earlier this week that it is putting all 146,000 people held in its prisons into lockdown over the virus.
Like other federal prisons Oakdale 1, a low-security facility with 971 inmates, had been screening workers for fever and respiratory symptoms at the gate. That was sufficient, Cohen wrote, after officials inquired about whether exposed guards should stay in isolation.
“I recommend that no further quarantine of the staff is necessary at this time,” she wrote. “The staff should be able to report for their usual assigned shifts once they have cleared the enhanced screening at the beginning of their shift.”
So workers have been moving in and out of the prison complex, risking their families as well as prisoners, said Corey Trammel, a union representative for Oakdale staff. Cohen, he said, “has put staff in harm’s way.”
The prison has stopped testing people incarcerated there, Trammel said. Eighteen are already in hospitals, and he fears that prison cases will overwhelm the health system in central Louisiana: “Our biggest fear is that we will run out of hospital beds and hospital staff.”
Nurses are toiling around the clock and corrections officers have worked shifts as long as 40 hours, he said.
The two-prison Oakdale complex also includes a prison camp for up to 140 low-security prisoners, some of whom make the food consumed inside the prison. On Wednesday, prison brass met with a few dozen people held at the camp to discuss the virus, according to two of their family members.
“Look, we probably all have it,” officials told the prisoners, according to the wife of one man who attended. “It’s too late for us.” They apologized, and said they were scared too, said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear officials would retaliate against her incarcerated husband.
That resonates with prisoners’ families. Another woman, who also asked us not to use her name, said they drove to Oakdale in mid-March so he could begin his sentence. “I'm expecting him to be back in a few months,” she said, “not dead from the coronavirus.”
The women said their husbands in the camp received surgical masks and had their temperatures taken on Thursday.
It seems like too little, too late, to Kirk Brannan, a 66-year-old Texas man who got out of the Oakdale camp Friday after a federal judge granted his motion for compassionate release. He attended the prison camp meeting, and confirmed that officials seem resigned to the virus spreading.
“There’s just been too much exposure,” he said, pointing out that officers move around the complex. And since the camp prisoners are making sandwiches for the entire complex—peanut butter or baloney—workers will have to shuttle food between the buildings.
A couple weeks ago, he said, officials briefly tried halting the spread of disease by locking camp inmates in their dorms, effectively preventing social distancing. They later reversed course, reopened the yard and resumed some classes with 10 students in a room, sharing tables.
“It seems like everything they do is the opposite of what they should be doing,” Brannan said, as he and his daughter drove back toward Houston following his release. “It’s obvious they had no contingency plan in place for this because they don’t know what to do—they’re just grasping at straws.”
Mayor Gene Paul said the COVID-19 outbreak at the prison has created chaos and uncertainty in Oakdale, a town of 8,000 people about 120 miles west of Baton Rouge. He said he doesn’t know why officials waited two weeks to lock down the prison.
“Everyone has a loved one who works out there,” Paul said. “People are very concerned, very upset, they don’t know what’s happening.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Kirk Brannan's trip after he left the Oakdale prison camp. He was driving toward Houston with his daughter.