1st federal inmate dies in prison hit hard by coronavirus after heartbreaking plea to judge

(OAKDALE, La.) — Having served nearly half of a 30-year federal term for a non-violent drug conviction, Patrick Jones poured his heart out in a letter to a judge, pleading that his sentence be reduced and to free him to be father to who he described as his straying 16-year-old son. Locked up in a federal prison in Louisiana, he wrote of his wish for a second chance to prove to the boy and society that he was more than just inmate No. 83582-180.

“It is just a number to be forgotten in time,” the 49-year-old Jones wrote Oct. 15 in a letter from the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, Louisiana. “But Mr. Patrick Estell Jones is a very good person. Caring, hardworking, free and clean of drugs and a lot smarter now, with a balanced outlook on life.”

Now, Jones will never get the chance to prove his mettle.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal and Oakdale prison Warden Rodney Myers accusing them and Attorney General William Barr of not moving fast enough to save the lives of Jones and four other inmates from what may be the worst coronavirus outbreak in the federal penitentiary system, according to BOP’s data.

The lawsuit, filed in the Western District of Louisiana, requests the expedited release of at-risk prisoners at Oakdale, warning that “given the exponential spread of COVID-19, there is no time to spare.”

“Imagine if someone sick with COVID-19 came into your home and sealed the doors and windows behind them,” the federal lawsuit reads. “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.”

Up to 30 inmates and staff at Oakdale have tested positive for coronavirus, officials said.

While BOP officials declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit, they released a statement saying they increased the number of prisoners released to home confinement in March by 40% and that prison case managers are “urgently reviewing all inmates to determine which ones meet the criteria established by the attorney general.”
‘We have to move with dispatch’

Barr issued a directive to Carvajal on March 26, just two days before Jones died, to reduce the number of inmates in the prison by transferring non-violent, at-risk inmates to home confinement based on a thorough case-by-case analysis.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed on behalf of prisoners with underlying conditions at Oakdale, notes that all the deaths came in the days after Barr’s directive was issued.

By Friday, as the pandemic penetrated prison walls across the country, Barr issued another memo to Carvajal, expressing urgency in getting prisoners out of harm’s way.

“We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities,” Barr wrote. “We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions.”

On Monday, Barr advised in a memorandum to the country’s 94 U.S. attorneys that they should consider “the medical risks associated with individuals being remanded into federal custody during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Even with the extensive precautions we are currently taking, each time a new person is added to a jail, it presents at least some risk to the personnel who operate that facility and to the people incarcerated therein,” Barr’s memorandum reads.

Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said that while the Department of Justice appears to have recognized the urgent humanitarian and public health crisis in prisons, she is “deeply concerned that relief is coming too slowly.”

“We must act now to avoid the worst-case scenario here,” Trivedi said in a statement.

Jones fit the criterion of an at-risk inmate at Oakdale eligible to be released to home confinement. A Bureau of Prisons’ statement said Jones had “long-term, preexisting medical conditions which the CDC lists as risk factors for developing more severe COVID-19 disease.”

On March 28, Jones became the nation’s first federal inmate to die from coronavirus, his demise coming about a month after his latest request for early release was rejected.
Request denied

Jones was arrested on Jan. 31, 2007, when police raided his apartment in Temple, Texas, and seized 19 grams of crack cocaine and 21 grams of powder cocaine. A jury found him guilty of possession with intent to distribute at least 5 grams of crack, but because Jones’ apartment was within 1,000 feet of a junior college, Jones was hit with an enhanced sentence of 30 years.

In November, Jones sought a reduced sentence under the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018 to reduce the federal prison population by cutting the sentences of inmates convicted of non-violent crimes and giving them a second chance to be productive members of society.

 Despite a judge agreeing that Jones was technically eligible for a reduced sentenced under the First Step Act, federal prosecutors recommended his request be rejected, according to court documents.

“The Court specifically took into account the nature and circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history and characteristics, and the need to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant,” U.S. District Court Judge Alan Albright wrote in his Feb. 26 ruling. “Jones is a career offender with multiple prior offenses and a history of recidivating each time he is placed on parole.”

‘He tried for 12 years to get anyone to pay attention’

In his letter, Jones asked for the opportunity to be a “productive member of society” and to finally be a good father to his now 16-year-old son, adding that he feared his boy was straying into the same trouble path that landed him in prison.

“I have not seen him since he was 3 years old,” Jones wrote. “When I have had a chance to talk to him over the phone, it’s effective and he’s okay for a while, but mistreatment and bad influences take him off his intended course of life …

“I feel that my conviction and sentence was also a punishment that my child had to endure also and there are no words for how remorseful I am,” he added. “Years of ‘I am sorry’ don’t seem to justify the absence of a father or the chance of having purpose in life by raising my child.”

He went on to tell the judge that he had nearly completed the requirements to receive his high school equivalency diploma, or GED, and that he had learned to be a baker, a cook and other skills “that I can be contributing to society and my community.”

In his petition to the court, Jones’ lawyers also pointed out that Jones’ conduct in prison “has been almost wholly favorable,” that he exhibited a “solid work history” and had paid off the $1,000 fine imposed as part of his sentencing.

“It’s sad,” Alison Looman, an attorney who represented Jones pro bono in a 2016 failed petition for clemency, told ABC News of Jones’ death. “I know that when we filed our clemency petition we thought that if he were charged today his sentence would have been at least 10 years less.”

Looman said she received a letter from Jones on Feb. 27.

“I wrote him back on March 13. I actually asked him to take care of himself,” Looman said. “I tried to make sure he was doing OK. I knew that coronavirus was going to be a thing at the prison. He wrote me back and said he was fine.”

She wrote Jones again on March 20, a day after he had been taken to a hospital complaining of a persistent cough, according to a federal Bureau of Prisons’ statement.

Jones’ health rapidly deteriorated and he was placed on a ventilator before he died, according to the BOP statement.

Looman said she can’t help but speculate that the denial of Jones’ petition for a reduced sentence broke his spirit.

“I have wondered if that factored in,” Looman said. “He tried for 12 years to get anyone to pay attention to what seemed like a relatively unjust sentence and a week before he got very ill he had just learned that once again he wasn’t successful. I just wonder if it was frustrating to hear yet again that he had been turned down.”

Jones ended his letter to the judge by sharing his desire to find his son — whom he said had recently fathered a child of his own — and “put him on the a track where a child his age needs to be.”

“I ask that I be judged wisely of sound heart and soul by the honorable heart, mind and soul of the wise one whom God has blessed and given his will to judge,” he wrote. “Thank you very much for your time and concern.”

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