ACLU seeks release of federal prison inmates where 5 died

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.

An email requesting comment was sent Monday to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The lawsuit 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 Sunday, 138 inmates and 59 staff members had tested positive for coronavirus at federal prisons across the U.S., according to data from the BOP.

“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 ACLU argues 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.


Associated Press reporters Michael Balsamo in Washington and Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.

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