Children of Incarceration

Inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, participate in a class called Malachi Dads, Tuesday, October 25, 2016, a prison parenting class to help men become positive influences in their children's lives while they are incarcerated and after they're released. (Photo by Ted Jackson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) ORG XMIT: NOLA2015061614435814

At least seven state prisoners have been tested for the novel coronavirus this week, but the Louisiana Department of Corrections hasn't disclosed the facilities where those inmates are being housed or provided updated information about the test results, saying only that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the state prison system. 

DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick said Friday that none of the tests had come back positive, but didn't say how many are still pending.

The news of prisoners being tested for COVID-19 comes amid growing concern from inmates and their families about several cases of what appears to be the flu at various state prisons. 

"No inmates have tested positive in our state prison system," Pastorick said in a statement. "Disclosing the names of the institutions housing inmates who have been tested would neither be prudent nor in the best interest of staff, prisoners or their families."

He didn't explain why that wouldn't be in their best interest. He said that if an inmate does test positive, DOC will "take the necessary actions to protect the prison population and staff, and notify the inmate's family, the public and the media."

Pastorick also confirmed Thursday that a total of 14 people across Louisiana's eight DOC facilities were currently being quarantined with flu symptoms. It's unclear whether any of them are among the seven tested for coronavirus.

Nine of the quarantined inmates are housed at Angola, the state's largest prison, and three at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Avoyelles Parish, according to the numbers DOC provided.

Pastorick said quarantining inmates with flu symptoms is normal protocol for the department, not special measures in response to the spreading coronavirus pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 10 people across Louisiana since it arrived in the state several days ago. 

Criminal justice advocates and defense attorneys have been sounding alarm bells in recent weeks, warning officials about the potential dire impacts of virus outbreaks inside Louisiana jails and prisons — which house the largest per capita incarcerated population in the world — and where close quarters and underlying health conditions could mean higher death tolls.

Advocates have been calling for the release of some prisoners who don't pose a significant public safety risk and whose health is already compromised, making them the most vulnerable.

Norris Henderson, a New Orleans nonprofit leader who spent 27 years incarcerated at Angola, said the conditions inside the prison would present the perfect opportunity for transmission. 

"Everybody's in close quarters there. You got 65 to 80 people living in dormitories," he said. "If somebody gets it, it could spread like wildfire and everybody has it."

The state's massive population of elderly people behind bars could be at greater risk, Henderson noted. DOC data show Louisiana has 4,761 inmates who are 55 years or older, the oldest category in the data.

The department announced last week its decision to suspend visitation at all state prisons for at least the next month. The facilities are being sanitized more often than usual and anyone coming in must pass a health screening first.

Officials said it's up to the Louisiana Department of Health to determine when inmates should be tested and provide the tests. DOC hasn't disclosed whether any guards have been tested. 

Benedict Kately, who spent more than 17 years locked up before his release from Angola on Tuesday, said the situation inside the prison has been "hectic" with some inmates quarantined for flu-like symptoms. 

With his release date looming, Kately took whatever precautions possible to protect his health, even pouring bleach on his hands. He also kept himself inside his dorm to avoid contact with anyone who could have been infected.

"Whatever they got going on around here, I'm not trying to go home with it," he said. "That's what I was really worried about."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.