Prisoners call for testing as COVID-19 spreads through Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Louisiana facilities

This peaceful façade hides a death camp, the first BOP prison to report a coronavirus death. “A federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, has stopped testing prisoners who are symptomatic for the coronavirus due to ‘sustained transmission’ at the facility,” reports thelensnola.org. “The announcement underscores concerns expressed in recent days by guards and inmates that the facility has become overrun with the virus.” The Washington Post headlined its story “An explosion of coronavirus cases cripples a federal prison in Louisiana.”

by Keith ‘Malik’ Washington, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee

The White House is deliberately ignoring the deadly impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where 175,000 prisoners are housed. In this incarceration nation, with by far the most prisoners in the world, more people are in federal prison than in any state prison system.

On the morning of March 29, I interviewed a registered nurse who works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and asked to remain anonymous. The nurse reported to me that eight people have tested positive for COVID-19 at Federal Correctional Institution Oakdale, the “sister facility” to USP Pollock, where I am housed. 

Of the eight cases at FCI Oakdale, six are prisoners and two are BOP employees. So far, one person has died and six prisoners are on ventilators at the facility. This first COVID-19 victim in a BOP prison, Patrick Jones, 49, was serving a 2007 sentence of 27 years for possession of crack cocaine, which the coronavirus turned into a death sentence.

FCI Oakdale is approximately 30 miles from USP Pollock. It’s a Care Level 2 facility, indicating that it holds prisoners with health care needs making them more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. 

Even closer to USP Pollock is the city of Alexandria, Louisiana, which reportedly has more than 54 cases of COVID-19 split between two public hospitals, Rapides and Cabrini Hospitals.

Thus far, we have no reported cases of COVID-19 at USP Pollock. Employees at the adjoining FCC Complex Pollock are screened for COVID-19 prior to entering the prison daily. 

However, mandatory testing has not been initiated at USP Pollock except for those who show symptoms after being screened. The virus continues to edge closer to USP Pollock, and it will take more than luck for us to pre-empt its spread.

On Friday, March 27, prison administrators here at USP Pollock approved the admittance of numerous prisoners from various federal detention centers and county jails in the area. These new admissions were not tested for COVID-19. They were, however, placed on quarantine in single cells for 14 days. 

The new prisoners were housed on Unit B-3 here at USP Pollock in the same building where I and many other healthy prisoners are housed.

I spoke to a BOP employee about the new arrivals and was told that the prisoners would be monitored closely for COVID-19 symptoms. I would like to point out that the COVID-19 virus can become airborne and could spread through the HVAC system which connects with every individual cell throughout our building!

It is my opinion and the opinion of many prisoners here that all new commits should first and foremost be tested for COVID-19 before being brought into this isolated environment at USP Pollock, which so far appears to be virus free!

Finally, it has been reported that U.S. Attorney General William Barr has instructed the BOP to release to home confinement older prisoners and those with chronic conditions who may be more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. 

My advocacy for COVID-19 testing for all BOP employees and prisoners is grounded in scientific fact-based evidence. In order to mitigate and contain the COVID-19 virus, testing and technology must be implemented immediately. 

Technology can enable the federal government to perform contact tracing. By now we all know that a person can be infected with the COVID-19 virus and transmit the virus yet show no symptoms whatsoever. Testing alleviates all the guesswork in assessing whether a prisoner or employee has been infected. 

Numerous BOP employees have told me that they do not believe that the federal government has enough COVID-19 test kits available for the BOP. I ask that all human beings with a conscience to help us contact prison officials here at USP Pollock as well as officials in Washington, D.C., and insist that mass COVID-19 testing be done throughout the BOP immediately.

Finally, it has been reported that U.S. Attorney General William Barr has instructed the BOP to release to home confinement older prisoners and those with chronic conditions who may be more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. 

According to Epoch Times, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., who also chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, urged Barr in a letter sent March 30 to use the authority granted to him under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to protect elderly, sick and pregnant prisoners.

“Release as many prisoners as possible,” they told Barr.

I ask all of you reading this report to contact the BOP and encourage the agency to release me as soon as possible. My help is needed during this crisis at the San Francisco Bay View, the national Black newspaper serving the millions of prisoners who are all vulnerable to COVID-19 – with no way to escape. 

The Bay View needs my help and I don’t want to become a casualty of the BOP’s flawed pandemic strategy! With my many contacts both inside prison and out, I’m uniquely qualified to report on those at the epicenter of the pandemic, the 2.3 million people in prisons around the country.

Dare to struggle, Dare to Win, All Power to the People!

Keith “Malik” Washington is assistant editor of the Bay View, studying and preparing to serve as editor after his release in 2021. He is also co-founder and chief spokesperson for the End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement, a proud member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and an activist in the Fight Toxic Prisons campaign. Visit his website at ComradeMalik.com. Send our brother some love and light: Keith “Malik” Washington, 34481-037, USP Pollock, P.O. Box 2099, Pollock LA 71467.