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Surviving a Pandemic When Your Loved One Is in Prison

The families and partners of those incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Complex at Oakdale are sharing information and support as COVID-19 hits the prison.

Photo by karenfoleyphotography/Getty Images.

As COVID-19 began its spread across the country—and advocates warned of mass outbreaks in prisons, jails, and detention facilities—Brandon Livas described the already dire conditions inside the federal prison where he is housed to his girlfriend, Arjeane Thompson.

He said a chorus of coughing from his neighbors at the Federal Correctional Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana, kept him up each night. He spent his days outside, away from other people, to the extent possible, while watching ambulances pull in and out of the facility.

Inside, however, it was business as usual. While politicians and public health officials made pleas for Americans to practice social distancing, the 140 men housed in the prison’s minimum security satellite camp with Livas were still sleeping side by side, three feet apart, and sharing eight showers. The federal government was debating a $2 trillion economic stimulus measure, but in the Louisiana federal prison, the only signs of a containment strategy in place were the signs on the wall reminding everyone inside to keep apart and wash hands. Prison officials didn’t provide protective gear; Livas had a mask, but only because he had held onto one he’d been given months earlier when he was assigned a cleaning job.

On March 22, Livas told Thompson, via email, the news she had dreaded: the virus had entered the prison. Three people had COVID-19.

Then Livas stopped responding to emails. Thompson was unable to reach him by phone — the two usually spoke each night. 

The next day, news reports confirmed Livas’s’s account: The virus had entered the prison complex. A week later, the prison announced that a 49-year-old man named Patrick Jones had died from the disease.

Since then, Thompson has had intermittent communication with Livas, who has diabetes, a COVID-19 risk factor. She has mostly been able to email him, but his phone access has been limited. The Bureau of Prisons has increased the allotted number of minutes each person in the federal system may spend on the phone—from 300 to 500 a month—but standard rates apply. Visitations were suspended indefinitely weeks ago.

Thompson considers herself lucky for being able to hear from her boyfriend at all. Because Livas is in “the Camp,” he has enjoyed more access to communication with the outside world than most. For weeks, the men housed in the complex’s two main sections, totaling more than 1,700 people, have only been able to communicate with loved ones through physical mail, Thompson said. 

Meanwhile, the situation at Oakdale has worsened considerably. By the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) count, at least five more people have died since March 28 – Nicholas Rodriguez, James Wilson, David Townsend, Wallace Holley Jr., and George Jeffus. At least 55 people have tested positive for COVID-19, including 38 incarcerated people and 17 staff members, according to the BOP.

Feelings of isolation, fear, and uncertainty are not unfamiliar to Thompson and families of incarcerated people. But they are often amplified for those with loved ones in the federal system, where people are often imprisoned hundreds of miles away from home.

Oakdale is nearly 200 miles—a three-and-a-half-hour drive—from Livas and Thompson’s home in New Orleans. 

To cope with the emotional stress of having a loved one in prison during the pandemic, Thompson has created an informal network of women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and loved ones are also incarcerated in Oakdale. Given the lack of clear information from prison officials about the health of those inside and procedures in place to ensure their safety, she said, the network has also been a critical source of news and updates.

On March 24, Thompson posted a public status on Facebook warning that “[t]here is a huge chance of massive community spread through out [sic] the facilities especially if they are acting like business as usual,” she said of the BOP. She pleaded with her followers to bring attention to the dire conditions inside: “[Oakdale] could quickly become a death camp,” she wrote.

The following day,  she spoke with a local news station about the outbreak. She soon began receiving messages from other women around the country whose loved ones were inside Oakdale. 

Many of the women, Thompson said, had been left in the dark about the health and safety of those on the inside. She has relayed to them her boyfriend’s accounts, offering a glimpse into what their loved ones may be living through. 

“I think talking to me and being able to hear Brandon’s perspective—at least getting to hear what the conditions may be like in there—it gives them an idea of what’s going on. So it gives them a little bit of peace,” Thompson said.

Each time Attorney General William Barr has released a public memo or notice about the state of federal prisons during the pandemic, Thompson sends around the information and reopens a line of communication.

“It’s rough for everyone,” she said. “But it’s nice to be able to talk to these fiancées, and sisters, and mothers about their fears, because we’re all in the same boat.”

On March 26, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 in BOP facilities, Barr instructed federal prisons to consider releasing certain people from federal custody into home confinement. He suggested BOP weigh a “non-exhaustive list” of factors, including whether an incarcerated individual is more vulnerable to COVID-19 and whether they have incurred a violation in prison. In a subsequent memo, he specifically named Oakdale as one of three facilities where a coronavirus outbreak is “materially affecting operations.”

But according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the memos did not do nearly enough. According to ACLU senior staff attorney Somil Trivedi, the memos were too vague and did not give any actionable guidance to local wardens. Instead, Trivedi said, the memos have only contributed to the confusion around release guidelines. 

“The staff [at Oakdale] have no direction, and so, in the absence of any direction, they’re basically slowing things down because they don’t know what to do,” Trivedi said. “The point was to move things more quickly and get people out; instead it’s been an excuse to hold up individual applications.”

On April 6, the ACLU filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of Livas and other medically vulnerable people in Oakdale, seeking their immediate release and alleging their continued confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The complaint warns of the potential for  “devastating, and in many cases deadly, irreparable harm” on “incarcerated persons, facility staff, and the community.”

In response to the lawsuit, the BOP provided an update on its progress: Of the nearly 2,000 people incarcerated at Oakdale, the prison agency reviewed only 58 cases and found six to be “potentially eligible.” Livas was deemed ineligible because of his score on a controversial risk assessment tool.

On Monday, the ACLU filed an emergency request asking the court to order the immediate release of medically vulnerable incarcerated individuals in Oakdale “to locations where they can socially distance” and to appoint a public health expert to oversee containment efforts inside the prison.

The point was to move things more quickly and get people out.

Somil Trivedi ACLU senior staff attorney

Louisiana—which often ties with Oklahoma as the incarceration capital of the world—has become a COVID-19 hotspot in the United States. Since the state’s first confirmed case on March 8, more than 17,000 people have been diagnosed with the illness and 650 have died. The state has the highest death rate in the country, and  is behind only New York, New Jersey, and Michigan in total number of deaths from the disease.

Last week, the chief justice of Louisiana’s highest court sent a letter to lower-court judges throughout the state requesting that they consider release for people convicted of low-level offenses. This week, the state’s public health office issued guidance to state and local incarceration facilities to mitigate the risk of spread of the virus, including decreasing the incarcerated population as a last resort.

For now, Thompson will wait and see whether the lawsuit will succeed or if the BOP will allow for Livas’s release. And until then, she—and the women sharing her experience—are left to worry about the health and safety of their loved ones while doing what they can to protect themselves.

“It’s already a lonely feeling being stuck at home, even if you do have someone there,” said Thompson. “But it’s especially difficult knowing that your loved one isn’t safe and there’s nothing you can do except talk about it.”