As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rise statewide, officials across the Acadiana criminal justice system are working to reduce the number of people in jail. They are also taking steps to protect the remaining inmates during the pandemic.
15th Judicial District Defender G. Paul Marx said his office is working with the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and area sheriffs' offices, especially the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, to identify offenders eligible for release on reduced bond, pleas to time served or for bond waivers pre-indictment.
The courts established Zoom conferencing this week to allow proceedings and judges have been reasonably flexible scheduling appearances, he said. With court proceedings for non-incarcerated individuals on hold, they’re able to focus more aggressively on advocating for release for clients, Marx said.
“It’s working more smoothly than I anticipated. I talked to the people in my office this week and we seem to have ended up in a congruent posture,” he said.
“For elected politicians, they’ve got a lot of considerations when they commit to doing this and it takes a lot of courage for the sheriff, the court and the district attorney to all work in this direction of supporting release. It certainly is a big deal,” Marx said.
15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes said his office is being more liberal in its approach to bond reductions and other measures for non-violent offenders because of the virus.
“The consciousness of releasing people from jail pre-trial is a little more focused because there is now a pressing health aspect for the inmates with the pandemic concern,” Stutes said.
The Louisiana Department of Health reported 48 cases of the coronavirus in Lafayette on Saturday, and a statewide total of 3,315.
On Feb. 20, 18 days before the first coronavirus case was announced in Louisiana, there were 693 inmates housed at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. As of Monday, there were 583 inmates in LPCC, according to the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Marx estimated his office worked on the release of 50 to 60 people last week, but the number is likely higher, he said. The public defender and the district attorney’s office said they’re working to pin down hard numbers for people who have secured reduced bonds or other forms of release, but it’s been difficult with the coronavirus-caused upheaval.
Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Captain John Mowell said in response to emailed questions the department was actively working with law enforcement and justice system partners to reduce the jail population to prevent overcrowding and give deputies “the flexibility and space to move people around better and quarantine them if needed.”
Mowell said all options are being considered.
The chief public defender said it’s crucial release is approved when possible because of the risk of rapid infection spread in jails’ tight quarters. It’s a high-risk environment, like nursing homes, with the only benefit being the offenders are typically younger, he said.
“It’s like a really cheap hotel but the people can’t check out and you can’t close it,” Marx said.
Departments in neighboring parishes are taking similar measures. While the jail population in St. Landry Parish has remained steady at roughly 250 inmates over the last month, Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said his department is working up a list of inmates they believe qualify for release to present to the 27th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Calls to 27th Judicial District Attorney Charles Cravins’ office were not immediately returned.
The release of offenders has been more contentious in the 16th Judicial District covering Iberia, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes, where judges, prosecutors and defenders have disagreed about delays to due process under state emergency orders during the coronavirus shutdown.
An argument over due process flared this week among criminal lawyers in the 16th Judicial District Court, which, like every other state court,…
Despite the disagreements, Lt. Col. Wendell Raborn at the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office said their jail population has been reduced. The jail averages around 430 inmates on a typical day, with a total capacity of about 520 inmates. As of Thursday, the Iberia Parish Jail had 391 inmates, he said.
“We are below 400 inmates for the first time probably in 10 years,” he estimated. “We’re taking every measure to try to prevent our population from being exposed.”
Across the board, sheriff’s departments said they’re limiting new arrests by issuing summons for nearly all misdemeanors, excluding domestic violence and others on a case-by-case basis.
For the inmates who remain in custody, most local sheriffs said they’re beefing up cleaning measures, limiting outside contact and screening new inmates to prevent the introduction and spread of the novel coronavirus inside their facilities.
Mowell said the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office is administering a survey with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended questions to new inmates, taking inmates’ temperatures and separating newly booked offenders for seven days before introducing them to the general population.
Acadia Parish Sheriff K.P. Gibson said their office is acting similarly, screening new offenders and taking their temperatures, but he said they have less freedom to separate the new arrestees from the general population for extended periods of time because of space constraints.
His deputies have been trying to keep new arrestees in the booking cells for as long as possible, but Gibson couldn’t give an exact time frame.
“The problem you run into is that you have an inmate population of about 180 people who have the potential to be exposed and there’s limited space where you could move a positive result or someone suspected of the virus,” Gibson said.
Vermilion Parish Jail Warden Kirk Frith said they’re screening all new arrestees for temperature and novel coronavirus symptoms but are only separating inmates if they display symptoms. None have shown signs of illness so far, he said during a Tuesday interview.
A flu outbreak at Lafayette Parish Correctional Center this month left inmates in at least one women’s dorm fearing for their health and safet…
All agencies have canceled outside visitations except from legal counsel, and in most cases agencies are pushing to have visits conducted using video conferencing. Marx, the 15th JDC district defender, said they worked with the jails in Acadia and Vermilion parishes to successfully enable video conferencing so lawyers can remain in contact with their clients and advance their cases safely and efficiently.
Video visitation and phone calls were already in place at LPCC. Mowell said one free video visitation and eight free phone calls are being allowed for each inmate per week now that in-person contact with family and friends has been cut off.
The sheriff’s departments are also trying to limit staffing numbers and contractor access to the facilities to limit possible exposure to employees and the inmates. Gibson said their goal is to have fewer than 10 people coming and going from the Acadia Parish Jail each day. They’re also trying to delay contract work unless there’s an emergency repair needed, he said.
Anyone who enters must have a temperature under 100 degrees, Gibson said.
Guidroz said the St. Landry Parish Jail was not screening employees, contract workers or new inmates for fever as of Friday that he knew of. If anyone on the job feels bad or is displaying symptoms, they’re asked to stay home, he said.
The sheriff’s departments said they’re also increasing sanitation and cleaning schedules, especially in areas frequented by deputies and others who come and go from the jail facility that could introduce the virus into the compounds.
Frith said at the Vermilion Parish Jail they’re maintaining their regular schedule of daily cleaning but have also added a sanitation wipe-down on weekends focused on the intake and booking areas, administrative offices and areas where employees frequent. Inmates are continuing to clean out their cells under deputy inspection, he said.
“We’ve given orders to monitor sanitation needs more closely and to make sure offenders have ample supplies. Everything needs to be paid closer attention to,” he said.
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in Louisiana, first responders are taking precautions to safely remain on the front lines of the …
Staff writer Ben Myers contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story listed Wendell Raborn's rank as Major. The Acadiana Advocate regrets the error.