A stinging analysis of one of the earliest and most lethal coronavirus outbreaks in the federal prison system found that a Louisiana facility, where eight inmates died, failed to implement timely screening, did not fully limit inmate movements and lacked adequate access to supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), an internal Justice Department report concluded.
After the first inmate at the Oakdale, La., complex tested positive March 21, “concern about access to PPE was so dire,” staffers raided the facility’s medical unit during an overnight shift in search of supplies, the Justice Department’s inspector general found.
While investigators determined that prison officials distributed surgical masks to staffers and inmates later that month, the virus was “already spreading rapidly” through the complex.
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The review also found that after nearly 100 asymptomatic inmates had tested positive for the virus in mid-May, officials “failed” to comply with federal isolation and quarantine policies.
“Some inmates who had tested positive were left in their housing units for up to six days without being isolated,” according to the report. “Moreover, staff who supervised these inmates were not advised that they would be interacting with COVID-19 positive inmates and were not furnished proper PPE prior to the inmates’ isolation.”
At the same time, the complex was dealing with a rash of staffing shortages, forcing some officers to work extended shifts – some as long as 40 consecutive hours.
One of the most striking findings in the report, however, found a “common nexus” between the earliest inmate infections and the prison’s Education Department.
Contact tracing revealed that the first four inmates to test positive were part of a class taught by an Oakdale teacher who had contracted the virus after traveling to New York City, ravaged by the virus earlier this year.
“Additionally, the first inmate to die from COVID-19 at Oakdale was an assistant to the teacher,” the report found.
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The virus’ rapid spread at the rural compound quickly distinguished Oakdale as the early epicenter of the pandemic in the vast federal prison system, prompting the May reassignment of the warden.
Deteriorating conditions at the facility also drew a flurry of lawsuits from the ACLU and inmates who feared they would fall victim to the virus’ march through the complex.
COVID-19 spikes again
The past eight months have exacted a heavy toll in detention systems across the country, including in federal prisons where the virus has claimed the lives of 140 inmates and two staffers.
As of Tuesday, at least 3,336 inmates and 1,078 staffers are infected, while 17,635 prisoners and 1,638 staffers had recovered.
So far this month, the federal prison system has recorded 10 deaths, the most in a month since August when 13 died.
There are also active cases at 120 federal prison facilities, according to the agency.
In their response to the inspector general’s inquiry, federal prison officials contended that they had complied with screening guidance for staffers provided by the agency and had limited inmate movements prior to recording the first positive test of an inmate.
Of the concerns raised for the lack of access to protective equipment, the agency said: “staff requested a greater level of (equipment) than CDC guidelines required.”