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Inmates, Staff On Edge As COVID-19 Spreads Through Federal Prisons

NOEL KING, HOST:

COVID-19 is spreading quickly through prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says 138 inmates and 59 employees have tested positive and at least seven inmates have died. Here's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas with the story of one prison where things are especially bad.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: The Oakdale Federal Correctional Complex is about a three-hour drive west of New Orleans. It has three low-security facilities and is home to almost 2,000 inmates.

ARJEANE THOMPSON: They're all really afraid. They feel like they're sitting ducks, really, just kind of waiting to get infected because it's getting out of control over there pretty quickly.

LUCAS: That's Arjeane Thompson (ph). Her boyfriend, Brandon Livas (ph), is an Oakdale inmate. They're in touch on a daily basis via email and phone. She says Livas is usually pretty stoic. But last week, that changed.

THOMPSON: Brandon sounded really, really panicked - just terrified that he might die in there. And he's just like, I'm not going to die like this.

LUCAS: Those worries are not unfounded. Five inmates at Oakdale have died from COVID-19. Twenty-two have tested positive, as have four staff, according to the Bureau of Prisons. A week ago, the bureau announced a 14-day lockdown at all federal prisons to try to slow the virus's spread. Inmates are to be confined to their cells. But for Livas and the 140 or so others at his facility, there are no cells to be locked in. They sleep in barracks-style buildings in bunk beds set about 3 feet apart. Again, Thompson.

THOMPSON: So there's two rooms with 70 bunks. And all night long, he has a hard time sleeping because of the coughing.

LUCAS: Her boyfriend, she says, is diabetic and has acute pancreatitis, underlying health conditions that compound their fears.

Carla Lunceford (ph) is in the same situation. She worries about her son, Donald Fugitt (ph), who's an inmate in another part of Oakdale.

CARLA LUNCEFORD: He's worried, and I'm worried because Donald has a birth defect. He - one of his lungs is smaller than the other. He has had some asthma problems from that.

LUCAS: He's told her that he fears catching the virus from the guards, who rotate among all parts of the Oakdale complex. He says guards sometimes wear masks, and sometimes they don't. And the drumbeat of confirmed cases and deaths out of Oakdale make her nervous.

LUNCEFORD: It's just getting scarier and scarier by the minute, you know?

LUCAS: Attorney General William Barr, on Friday, ordered the Bureau of Prisons to shift more inmates to home confinement and speed up the release of high-risk inmates, particularly those at Oakdale and two other hard-hit facilities. That has raised hopes for an early release.

But Oakdale inmates are not alone in their fears. The prison staff are also scared right now. Ronald Morris is a maintenance worker at Oakdale and the president of a local prison workers union.

RONALD MORRIS: We are the epicenter of the pandemic for the bureau.

LUCAS: According to the union's tally, Oakdale is even harder hit than the bureau's statistics suggest. Morris says that as of Sunday, 25 inmates have tested positive, including the five who have died. More are waiting on results. On the staff side, he says, there are 21 confirmed cases and another 17 who are waiting for results.

MORRIS: Oh, I absolutely believe I have been exposed. I believe it would be safe to say that 80% of the staff out there have been exposed.

LUCAS: Already, the toll from the virus has forced staff to work double shifts. Morris says his biggest fear is catching the virus and taking it home to his wife and three teenage kids. He says he does what he can to try to prevent that. When he gets home every day, he kicks his boots off outside and sprays them with Lysol. He strips down in his utility room and throws his clothes directly into the washing machine and then runs straight into the shower. The virus doesn't care if you're prison staff or an inmate, he says. That's just the dangerous nature of what Oakdale's dealing with.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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