Federal inmates to be locked in cells for 14 days amid virus

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2006, file photo a person drive through the gates of a federal prison in Oakdale, La. The federal Bureau of Prisons is locking all its 146,000 inmates in their cells for the next two weeks in an unparalleled effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as the focus shifts to the Louisiana compound, where two inmates have died and nearly 20 others remain hospitalized. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File) (AP2006)

WASHINGTON – The federal Bureau of Prisons is locking all its 146,000 inmates in their cells for the next two weeks in an unparalleled effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as the focus shifts to a Louisiana compound, where three inmates have died and nearly 20 others remain hospitalized.

The compound, known as FCC Oakdale, has emerged as ground zero in the federal prison system’s struggle to contain coronavirus behind bars. The situation there is so dire that the local health department told the federal government there was no need to test inmates anymore for the coronavirus, officials said. Those showing symptoms should be presumed to have it.

On Wednesday, the agency confirmed that two inmates at Oakdale had died. They identified one as 43-year-old Nicholas Rodriquez and were still attempting to notify the second man's family Wednesday evening. Just days earlier, another man, serving a 27-year drug sentence, died at a hospital from the coronavirus. Officials said both that man and Rodriquez had serious, long-term, underlying health conditions. They are the only deaths so far in federal prisons, but state and local lockups have seen deaths.

So far, 11 Oakdale inmates have tested positive, 19 others are in the hospital and suspected of having the disease, 32 are in isolation with symptoms and 82 have been quarantined because of possible exposure, according to local union president Ronald Morris.

In addition, 13 staff members have tested positive, one is hospitalized in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Alexandria, about 50 minutes away, and about 16 others are out of work awaiting test results.

“It is a mess here,” Morris said.

The Bureau of Prisons said the uptick is “consistent with the surge of positive cases in Louisiana” and because there were so many cases at the prison, local health officials have recommended not testing anyone else who shows COVID-19 symptoms and instead presume they are positive.

But Kevin Litten, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health, said officials did not tell the prison to stop testing prisoners. He said state officials advised the prison, in the absence of testing, to isolate prisoners with symptoms.