A class-action lawsuit filed Monday seeks the release of hundreds of high-risk inmates at a federal lockup in Louisiana where the coronavirus has claimed the lives of five prisoners and infected nearly two dozen others.
The American Civil Liberties Union claims Attorney General William Barr did not go far enough last week in a directive to begin releasing vulnerable prisoners at the FCC Oakdale to 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.”
Conditions at Oakdale - where inmates sleep in dorm-style barracks and share showers and communal bars of soap - run afoul of the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment, the lawsuit says.
The federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in a statement it had increased home confinement by over 40% since March. Prison case managers are “urgently reviewing all inmates to determine which ones meet the criteria established by the attorney general,” the statement said.
The lawsuit, one of several similar efforts to release inmates around the country, comes three days after Barr directed the BOP to expedite its use of home confinement, giving highest priority to medically vulnerable prisoners at hard-hit Oakdale, a low-security facility nearly 200 miles from New Orleans.
Federal prisons in Connecticut and Ohio also have been stricken with outbreaks in recent weeks. 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.
The new figures also showed more than 50 inmates have tested positive at FCC Butner, a federal prison complex in North Carolina, up from 11 reported inmate cases the day before.
“We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions,” the attorney general wrote in a memo Friday to the prison system’s director.
The Bureau of Prisons said an additional 566 inmates had been placed in home confinement since Barr first issued a directive to increase its use in late March. More than 3,400 inmates were on home confinement and over 7,000 others are placed in residential reentry centers across the U.S.
In a separate memo to U.S. attorneys on Monday, Barr said prosecutors should “consider not seeking detention to the same degree we would under normal circumstances,” specifically for pre-trial defendants who likely pose little threat to the public and may be at a higher risk for the virus.
Federal prosecutors should also consider potential medical risk if the defendants are remanded into federal custody and the same considerations should also be made when inmates are seeking to be released from prison, Barr wrote. But at the same time, the attorney general said that “under no circumstance should those who present a risk to any person or the community be released.”
“We have an obligation to maintain public safety and to protect victims and witnesses from threats and retaliation, and we must also safeguard the health and safety of those remanded to our custody,” Barr wrote.
Similar lawsuits have been filed around the country as coronavirus outbreaks have occurred in federal and state facilities.
Civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit over the weekend against the Miami-Dade County corrections department seeking an emergency order to release medically vulnerable inmates at one of its main jail sites. The MetroWest Detention Center is a “petri dish” for the virus, the lawsuit says, adding inmates lack basic protections such as hand sanitizer and soap for easy hand-washing.
A separate federal lawsuit filed in New Orleans last week seeks the release of vulnerable inmates from five immigration detention centers in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
In the Oakdale case, the ACLU argued Barr’s directive did not define “vulnerable inmates” and offered no timeline for their release under a case-by-case review.
Correctional officers are still going home and returning to Oakdale even amid an unprecedented lockdown at the facility, the lawsuit says. “Failing to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 endangers not only those within the institution,” it says, “but the entire community.”
Inmates are bearing the brunt of cleaning the prison, said Ronald Morris, president of the local correctional officers union. Cleaning teams made up of inmates rove the institution, disinfecting prisoners’ living areas daily.
“They’re just as scared and fearful and anxious about all of this,” Morris said. “They’re cleaning for self-preservation, basically.”
One of the prisoners at risk is Carlos Lorenzo Martin, a 35-year-old who has compromised lungs due to childhood asthma, the lawsuit says. He’s serving time for a drug conviction and was slated for release in eight months.
“He is housed in a room which sleeps 72 prisoners in bunks arranged in rows, such that when he sleeps he can reach out and touch the person next to him on either side,” the lawsuit says.
Balsamo reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson in Miami and Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.
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