The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit on Monday against the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the warden of Oakdale Federal Detention Centers in Louisiana seeking “the release of people who are incarcerated and at high risk for serious illness or death in the event of COVID-19 infection due to age and/or underlying medical conditions.”
Oakdale prison has already confirmed “five coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic started,” more than any other BOP facility. Despite the growing number of infected inmates, the suit also alleges that many inmates do not have access to hot water or soap, and 125 people are still sharing a single row of six showers. With no room or ability to self isolate, the ACLU believes that keeping low-risk inmates in such conditions not only violates the rights of the prisoners but also serves to endanger the communities around the prisons themselves.
Last week as the situation at Oakdale continued to deteriorate, US Attorney General William Barr specifically singled out Oakdale prison in an order to several high-risk prisons that directed those prisons to reduce populations by instituting home confinement for some inmates. However, the ACLU believes that the Attorney General’s order is not specific enough in either its timeline or its parameters for the transition. They also allege that Oakdale has taken no action to release any prisoners since the issuance of the Attorney General’s order. As a result, the suit asks a judge to step in and order the immediate release of inmates who fall under the ACLU’s class action status with the understanding that the Attorney General’s memo does not adequately define the group eligible for early release and lacked any definitive timeline for its execution.
In addition to this suit, the ACLU is also calling for a broader and more nuanced policy to COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons instead of the more reactionary case by case approach currently being used by the BOP and Department of Justice. The ACLU is warning that “public health experts have repeatedly warned that COVID-19 will spread rapidly once it enters prisons, jails, and detention centers—both within the facilities and in the communities that surround them.” Without a broader policy for prison infections many fear that a case by case approach will only serve to combat existing outbreaks instead of preventing the further spread of the virus and the deaths of incarcerated inmates who have no ability to shield themselves from the disease.
For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.