‘Jammed together like sardines’: ACLU seeks restraining order against feds to avoid COVID-19 prison outbreak horror

(OAKDALE, La.) — One inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, Louisiana, claims he and his fellow prisoners are being “jammed together like sardines.” Another alleges he and other inmates are “coughing all night long” in their bunks, and a third says he wakes up “face-to-face” with two other men incarcerated in a 10-by-15-foot cell.

These are just some of the complaints made in court documents filed on Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking a temporary restraining order against the federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) plan to blunt the spread of a coronavirus outbreak at the Oakdale prison.

The documents, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, contend the BOP is moving too slow to avoid a human catastrophe at the facility that houses more than 1,800 inmates. The ACLU is demanding the release of more than 700 inmates at the facility it says meet the criteria set by the BOP for early release or home confinement.

”Despite the government’s directive to reduce the population in the Bureau of Prisons-run prison, Oakdale has identified just one person for release and another person has died since a court hearing on Tuesday [April 7],” the ACLU said in a statement. ”According to the government’s disclosure, BOP plans to only review — much less release — fewer than 100 additional incarcerated people for release due to COVID-19.”

The ACLU’s request for a temporary restraining order, filed on behalf of six inmates with underlying health conditions, claims the BOP has only approved one prisoner for early release and has identified just 50 to 70 as possibly eligible since Attorney General William Barr issued a directive on March 26 to immediately reduce the population at Oakdale in the wake of the pandemic.

In its new filing, the ACLU also requested the immediate appointment of a public health expert to oversee changes at Oakdale “to ensure social distancing and infection prevention and treatment for those remaining.”

“Given the mounting death toll inside, there is no time to waste,” the court papers read.

In a report filed on Friday updating the court on conditions at the prison, BOP officials said that in addition to the six coronavirus-related fatalities, 49 inmates have tested positive for the virus, including 18 who have been hospitalized. The BOP also said that 17 staff members at the prison have tested positive for the virus and another 19 are on quarantine pending the results of testing, including a number of staff members responsible for identifying prisoners eligible for early release or home confinement, according to the court papers.

“BOP is slow-walking the release, testing, and care at the prison, and the consequence is human life,” Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform, said in a statement to ABC News.

The request for a temporary restraining order comes a week after the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against Federal Bureau of Prisons 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 what it characterizes as vulnerable inmates in what it says may be the worst coronavirus outbreak in the federal penitentiary system.

The lawsuit, also filed in the Western District of Louisiana, requested the expedited release of at-risk prisoners at Oakdale and accused the BOP of violating the inmates’ Eighth Amendment right against unusual punishment.

”The review process is too little, too late,” Trivedi said of the BOP’s so-called “action plan.” “It does nothing to achieve social distancing, which public health experts agree is crucial for containing the outbreak. Men are sleeping three, four, five to a cell, less than six feet away, and many are reporting that cellmates are coughing through the night.”

A BOP spokesperson told ABC News the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

In a statement to ABC News on Friday, the BOP said it has “taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff and inmates as well as visitors and members of the public” in federal prisons and detention centers nationwide.

In its update to the court on the Oakdale prison, the BOP said it has identified 58 inmates at Oakdale and more than 4,000 nationwide to be reviewed for early release or home confinement.

“However, circumstances made this a challenge, with a leader in this department being out under quarantine, and other staff having to perform ancillary custody functions to ensure basic needs, orderly operations, safety, and security are provided to FCC Oakdale inmates,” the BOP said in its report.

“Of those reviewed, the most common reasons for ineligibility appear to be history of previous violence or sex offenses,” the BOP said in its report.

The BOP reviewed the eligibility of the six prisoners named as petitioners in the ACLU lawsuit and found that four of them were at risk of recidivism, “removing them from priority consideration.” The BOP said one was also ineligible “due to his current offenses, involving the production and possession of child pornography.”

Attorney General Barr recognized that indiscriminately releasing inmates “would pose profound risks to the public from released prisoners engaging in additional criminal activity, potentially including violence or heinous sex offenses,” the BOP wrote in its update.

But Trivedi of the ACLU contends the BOP is basing its review on which prisoners to release on “flawed criteria.”

“They’re tackling exponential growth with decidedly linear thinking,” Trivedi said of the BOP attempt to curb the coronavirus outbreak. “The only constitutional and medically sound approach involves expedited, responsible release of all medically-vulnerable prisoners to home confinement or other places where they can socially distance, plus appointing a public health expert to oversee internal measures to guarantee that remaining prisoners can socially distance in a clean, safe environment. This so-called plan does none of that.”

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