An outbreak of scabies, a communicable skin condition that leaves those affected with itches and rashes, caused the majority of female inmates at Orleans Parish Prison to be quarantined this week, essentially cutting off their ability to seek legal aid and have contact with others, according to the Orleans Public Defenders Office.
Sheriff’s Office attorneys on Wednesday sent a note to the Public Defenders Office announcing that all female inmates not in the mental health unit were quarantined until Friday, said Colin Reingold, litigation director for the defenders office.
“We have ongoing concerns about our ability to visit with our clients and how the sheriff’s ability to maintain a sanitary facility is impacting our ability to meet with our clients,” Reingold said.
It was not clear Friday evening whether the problem had been resolved.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment or answer several questions about the outbreak submitted by The New Orleans Advocate.
Reingold said the Public Defenders Office had not been contacted by the Sheriff’s Office with any updates.
The outbreak is the latest problem to surface at the beleaguered jail, which previously has wrestled with myriad problems — including frequent incidents of violence, rodent and pest problems, and issues with mold in its facilities — as it faces a court-ordered plan for reform, known as a federal consent decree.
However, state epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard said scabies is introduced to a facility by an individual. The mites are not able to live in a building on their own.
“They’re not going to live free,” he said. “They need a host.”
Scabies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, happens when human itch mites burrow into the upper layer of skin to live and lay eggs. Common symptoms include itching and rashes.
Scabies mites are usually spread through “direct, prolonged, skin-to-skin contact” with someone already infected, according to the CDC. Facilities such as nursing homes and jails often are the sites of outbreaks.
Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said scabies is not a condition that requires a notification to state health officials.
Reingold could not say how many visits to inmates by attorneys might have been affected by the quarantine because they usually are not scheduled long in advance.
The Public Defenders Office, however, typically has 150 to 180 meetings a week with all inmates, both male and female. Reingold was not able to break down that number between men and women.
It is possible to hold a video conference with an inmate, Reingold said, but the quality of the audio and video is less than ideal for anything beyond a brief conversation.
The quarantine led to concern about how long some inmates would be held.
“Obviously, different cases have different levels of urgency,” Reingold said. “Someone arrested on a misdemeanor who has a case in Municipal Court — the lawyer might need to consult with them immediately to determine if they can get out of jail. Some others might have more serious cases and ... need to discuss matters with (their attorney). Any hindrance in our ability to visit our clients is going to slow things down, both in terms of our representation and for the system in general. In the event that we can’t arrange some sort of meeting ... it is hurry up and wait.”
It’s not clear when the infestation at the Temporary Detention Center at South Jefferson Davis Parkway and Perdido Street, where the women are housed, might have begun.
After a person is first infested with scabies mites, symptoms can take up to two months to appear, according to the CDC. Someone who previously was infested can see symptoms within one to four days.
An infested person can spread the mites even if symptoms are not yet visible.
Treatments to kill the mites and their eggs, known as scabicides, are available only by prescription, according to the CDC.
All persons at a facility should be treated at the same time to prevent reinfestation, the CDC says. Clothing and linens should be washed in hot water and dried in a hot dryer.
The medical treatment and washing of clothes and linens is the only way to do away with the mites, Ratard said.
Editor’s note: The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office on Friday afternoon said that a scabies outbreak among some female inmates had been cleared up. The emailed notification was, however, held back by a spam filter and led The New Orleans Advocate to report that the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. Also, an earlier version of this story stated that the majority of the Orleans Public Defenders Office’s clients are female. The majority of the office’s clients are actually male. The Advocate regrets the errors.