UnidentifiedPrisoner at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.jpg

Unnamed inmate at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center

Of the 249 Louisiana inmates considered for furlough from prison as the coronavirus spreads behind bars, only 53 have been approved for early release so far, the governor's office said Thursday. 

That's about 21 percent.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections announced the furlough program earlier this month in an effort to reduce the state prison population amid concerns that the close quarters of detention centers will exacerbate the virus' spread.

But the review panel created to evaluate qualifying inmates has voted "no" in almost 80 percent of the cases it has considered so far. It is still meeting regularly and reviewing cases. 

Inmates must meet a narrow set of criteria to even be considered for temporary release. They can't be convicted of a violent crime or sex offense and must be within six months of their release date, among other requirements.

Prisoner rights advocates have criticized the plan for its limited scope. 

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DOC officials estimated about 1,200 inmates would be eligible. The total state prison population is about 32,000 people, the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

Officials provided no explanation of the panel's recent decisions. Its meetings are happening behind closed doors; DOC says they're internal administrative reviews and therefore exempt from state open meetings laws.

News of the widespread furlough denials came as coronavirus case counts continue to climb among inmates. DOC officials recently decided to test everyone in a single women's dorm at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel amid an outbreak there, making it one of the few places across the state where asymptomatic people are being tested. 

The results show that 75 percent of 155 asymptomatic inmates tested positive for the coronavirus. DOC officials released those numbers Thursday but didn't say whether mass testing is planned at any other prison facilities. 

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.