by Matt Clarke
On May 22, 2020, Rodney Myers was removed from his position as warden of a federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, after severe criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former warden’s failure to isolate prisoners with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and requiring staff to work without adequate protection and after exposure to a confirmed case led to the prison being inundated with COVID-19 cases.
As of May 26, 185 prisoners at FCC Oakdale were known to have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. At that time, seven had died and 87 had recovered, leaving 91 active cases. Oakdale alone accounted for 12% of the 59 federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) prisoners who had perished due to COVID-19 by then.
At the same time, 23 members of the FCC staff had confirmed cases of COVID-19, 10 of whom had recovered and 13 of whom had active infections.
The former warden’s failure to address the pandemic led prisoners, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and Katten Muchin Rosenman, LLP, to file a federal class-action civil rights lawsuit seeking release of the prisoners who are at high risk for serious illness or death due to age or underlying medical conditions if infected with the COVID-19 virus. See: Livas v Myers, USDC, (W.D. La.), Case No. 1:20-cv-00422.
The lawsuit was filed on April 6, 2020, less than a week after U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a directive instructing the BOP to reduce the Oakdale prisoner population by conducting a case-by-case analysis of each prisoner’s case. The lawsuit argued that this process was too slow.
“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,” said senior staff attorney Somil Trivedi of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The Department of Justice has finally recognized the tremendous humanitarian and· public health crisis that our mass incarcerations crisis presents during this pandemic—around the country and especially in Louisiana.”
Unfortunately, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit on April 22, 2020. “This ruling does not change the fact that our clients, the staff, and the surrounding community are all at grave risk due to Oakdale’s failure to adequately respond to this crisis. While it may be too late for the seven men who have died, it is not too late for the Bureau of Prisons to prevent further loss of life by releasing people out of harm’s way,” said ACLU of Louisiana senior staff attorney Bruce Hamilton.
The outbreak caused a rare alignment of the interests of the prisoners and staff at Oakdale. The prisoners filed a lawsuit, the union representing the staff filed an “imminent danger” complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and sent a letter to BOP Director Michael Carvajal complaining about Myers and his failure to properly respond to the pandemic.
The letter said staff transporting prisoners to areas known to have active COVID-19, such as local hospitals, quarantine units and isolation units or working in those areas, were not given proper Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) or trained in how to safely don and doff PPE.
Further, Myers did not notify staff when they had been exposed to prisoners who were known to be COVID-19-positive and did not allow staff who had been exposed and did not have proper PPE to quarantine for 14 days.
Myers also allegedly failed to educate prisoners and staff on the proper procedure to release prisoners from isolation, causing some prisoners to believe that prisoners with COVID-19 symptoms were being introduced into a general population area. This led to prisoner unrest and the deployment of pepper spray.
Myers allegedly failed to implement effective segregation of prisoners by housing, as ordered by the BOP, and continued to allow the potential introduction and spread of the virus by permitting prisoners to congregate in the Education Department and allowing them to be exposed to Education Department staff and other staff that traveled between prisons.
American Federation of Government Employees Local 1007 President Ronald Morris believes the letter led to the removal of Myers and his temporary reassignment to the BOP’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas.
Additional sources: aclu.org, thecrimereport.org, KPLC.com
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