ACLU sues for release of high-risk federal inmates after five die of coronavirus at Louisiana prison
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, arguing officials have failed to manage a coronavirus outbreak “ravaging” a Louisiana detention center that has already seen five deaths linked to the illness.
The low-security prison in Oakdale, located about 100 miles outside of Baton Rogue, housed the first inmate in federal custody to die from COVID-19. Since his death last month, the facility has reported more infections than any of the other 122 federal prisons, with a total of 22 cases as of Sunday.
In the suit, filed on behalf of a group of chronically-ill inmates, the ACLU contended Attorney General William Barr did not go far enough in his recent directive to reduce the number of people in the prisons by way of home confinement.
“Imagine if someone sick with COVID-19 came into your home and sealed the doors and windows behind them," the ACLU argued in the federal lawsuit.
"That is what the Oakdale federal detention centers have just done to the over 1,800 human beings currently detained there, where a COVID-19 outbreak is rampant, social distancing is impossible and no one detained can leave.”
Without court intervention, “devastating, and in many cases deadly, irreparable harm will befall incarcerated persons, facility staff, and the community," according to court documents.
Inmates named in the ACLU’s class-action lawsuit described challenging conditions that have emerged at the packed detention center during the coronavirus pandemic. Health experts all over the world have warned the contained environment of a prison makes it especially susceptible to the spread of illness.
One inmate, a 35-year-old with “compromised lungs due to childhood asthma,” said that he sleeps in a room that holds 72 prisoners. It’s so crowded, he noted, that he could reach out and touch his neighbors while they sleep.
Others recalled having no access to hot water and washing with communal soap across six showers, shared by 125 people.
In the lawsuit, the ALCU demanded a judge step in to facilitate the release of high-risk prisoners, giving priority to those with previous and underlying medical conditions, arguing that the process is moving too slowly and without any specific timeline.
“Public health experts are consistent in warning that prisons and jails are extremely dangerous incubators for this disease. Conditions are now deadly — threatening the health of incarcerated people, staff and the surrounding community,” Alanah Odoms Herbert, executive director at the ACLU of Louisiana, said in a statement.
“What we are seeing on the ground does not encourage us that the federal government is acting with the urgency that will be required to protect Louisianans from this pandemic.
Barr on Friday told the Bureau of Prisons chief in a memo to maximize the use of early release programs at the Louisiana prison as well as at facilities in Ohio and Connecticut. As of Monday, 196 inmates and 63 staff members had tested positive for coronavirus at federal prisons across the U.S., according to data from the BOP.