As the as the coronavirus storm was making landfall in the U.S., prison and jail officials across the country were anxiously bracing for the onslaught.
Thousands of potentially vulnerable inmates were set free or sent to home confinement to reduce the risk of large-scale outbreaks. Visitation was halted, and isolation wards were designated for those who would be exposed.
Now, detention authorities are deep into managing hundreds of infected and quarantined inmates, whose numbers have been changing by the day.
Chicago's Cook County Jail, one of the largest in the country, reported 251 prisoner infections and one death as of Thursday. After announcing its first infection more than two weeks ago, the federal Bureau of Prisons has 253 infected inmates with eight deaths as of Thursday morning. At least 132 sick inmates were in medical isolation Thursday in Texas, while more than 10,000 have been assigned some form of medical restriction limiting their movements because they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
"Due to the sheer size of our system, when you add one more thing to the equation it's going to be a challenge," said Jeremy Desel, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the largest state prison system in the country with 140,000 offenders. "But the management of this is going as well as could be expected.
The mission has been increasingly complicated in some systems because of a rising number of workers who have become ill.
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'No playbook for something like this'
At least 150 employees in the Cook County jail system have been diagnosed with the virus – up from 29 last week. Eighty-five federal prison workers are infected, while the New York Department of Corrections reported Wednesday that 381 staffers had been diagnosed with the virus.
"There is no playbook for something like this," said Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, who has recently converted a former boot camp facility to accommodate up to 500 sick inmates and others who exhibit symptoms of the virus.
"It's like a darn Rubik's Cube," the sheriff said, referring to the hand-held puzzle game. "You turn up the pressure one way, and see what you get."
Speeding release: AG Barr speeds release of vulnerable inmates at federal prisons
Amid mounting infections in the federal Bureau of Prisons last week, Attorney General William Barr announced a plan to expedite the release of especially vulnerable prisoners to home confinement at three prisons where authorities were scrambling to contain outbreaks.
"We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities, including the Federal Correctional Institution Oakdale (Louisiana), Danbury (Connecticut) and Elkton (Ohio)," Barr said. "We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement when appropriate to move vulnerable inmates out these institutions.
"Given the speed with which this disease has spread through the general public, it is clear that time is of the essence," the attorney general said.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, noting the three deaths at the federal prison in Elkton, ordered the temporary deployment of National Guard medics this week to assist with prisoner medical care there.
"Providing state help for this federal prison is the right thing to do," DeWine said.
Outbreak is 'ravaging the facility'
Since March 26, when Barr issued his first memo calling for an expansion of home confinement, federal prison officials said they have moved 615 inmates from across the 122-prison system to serve out the remainder of their terms at home.
"Given the surge in positive cases at select sites and in response to ... Attorney General Barr's directives, the BOP began immediately reviewing all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors, as described by the CDC, to determine which inmates are suitable for home confinement," the agency said.
The low-security Oakdale compound, where five federal inmates have died so far, has been hardest hit.
This week, six chronically ill Oakdale inmates sued for their release, claiming in a class-action lawsuit that authorities have been unable to manage an outbreak that is "ravaging the facility."
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The lawsuit, filed Monday on the inmates' behalf by the ACLU, asserted that recent Justice Department efforts to expedite releases have not moved fast enough to identify medically-compromised and other vulnerable inmates.
Louisiana's lawmakers also have demanded more aggressive action by the federal government.
“We recognize these are challenging times for the Bureau of Prisons, but the situation at Oakdale...is unacceptable," Rep. Mike Johnson said this week. "The BOP must take decisive action to protect the health and safety of the staff, officers, prison population and surrounding community."
Communities could be affected, too
Sen. John Kennedy said the threat inside the prison could expand to the outside community of about 8,000 residents.
“What goes on at this federal prison affects inmates, staff and the broader Oakdale community," Kennedy said. "We need answers about what happened in Oakdale and how the Bureau of Prisons is going to mitigate this outbreak."
Ronald Morris, president of the local union that represents Oakdale prison workers, said four local hospitals have been treating the most seriously ill inmates. At least three, Morris said, were on ventilators.
At the Oakdale complex, where officials said 35 prisoners and 13 staffers had tested positive as of Thursday, Morris said another 713 had been quarantined.
"These have been long days," Morris said.
In Texas, prison spokesman Desel said an "emergency command center" has been operating for the past since early March to help track the extent of the outbreak within the system.
By last week, Desel said, the turnaround time for virus testing had been cut from up to five days to between 12 and 36 hours. He said all of the tests were being run through the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
In a further effort to control the spread, the state's prison system has stopped accepting inmates from some county jails, including Dallas and Houston counties, where there have been reported cases of the virus.
Still, the virus has proved formidable.
On Tuesday, the state system reported what it believed to be its first virus-related inmate death.
Officials said Bartolo Infante, 72, a sex offender, suffered from a number of "pre-existing medical conditions" and had been hospitalized for pneumonia when on April 3 he tested positive for COVID-19.
Contributing: Jessie Balmert, Cincinnati Enquirer