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Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, left, speaks at a briefing of media members on the state's current situation dealing with the novel coronavirus COVID-19 public health threat, addressing a program that will evaluate some prisoners for possible furlough to allow better social distancing of inmates, as Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, listens on April 14.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has created a review panel to consider a select group of state prison inmates for temporary medical release — focusing on nonviolent offenders nearing the ends of their sentences — in hopes of limiting the spread of coronavirus behind bars after dozens of prisoners and guards have tested positive in recent weeks. 

Department officials announced details of the furlough program Tuesday afternoon, though the governor had already outlined most of its provisions last week. The panel is expected to start reviewing cases on Friday. 

Officials presented a series of narrow criteria that inmates must meet in order to be considered for furlough.

For those housed in state prisons, that includes underlying health conditions, nonviolent convictions excluding sex offenses, a release date within six months and proof of housing ready to receive them upon release.

A second group of DOC inmates mostly being housed in local jails will also have to meet those same criteria, though they won't be required to have underlying medical conditions. Those inmates, who typically are serving short sentences for relatively minor crimes, must have already served at least six months of their sentence. 

About half of Louisiana's 32,000 state prisoners are housed in local jails for the duration of their sentences, and about 1,100 of them will be eligible for release under the furlough program, DOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said during the governor's daily press conference Tuesday. He said only about 100 inmates housed in state prisons, which contain those convicted of the most serious crimes and serving the longest sentences, will be eligible.

That means the program will have essentially no impact on the number of people inside state prison facilities, though local jails will likely see some reductions. Local jail populations across the state have already shrunk as prosecutors and public defenders work with judges to minimize the number of people awaiting trial behind bars because they can't afford to post bond.

Prisoner rights advocates argue DOC's plan will prove too little too late. 

Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, said Louisiana leaders should "act with the swiftness and compassion" demonstrated in other states where larger inmates releases have already occurred. She said it's disappointing that DOC appears to be releasing only "a handful of people with this highly limited furlough criteria." 

The new panel consists of six members: representatives from DOC, the Louisiana Division of Probation and Parole, the state Board of Pardons and Parole, the Louisiana Sheriff's Association and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, in addition to a victim's advocate appointed by the governor.

Five out of six votes will be required to approve someone for release, and the panel will review cases on a rolling basis while the coronavirus crisis persists, officials said. The inmates who are released will be placed on house arrest and required to wear a GPS ankle monitor. Their furlough could be revoked at any time if the person violates conditions of release. 

"This additional endeavor will help further our efforts to protect staff and inmates in these facilities," LeBlanc said. "Public safety is paramount when making a decision to furlough any inmate, which is why I have chosen to create this panel."

LeBlanc noted that the program mirrors recent action from Attorney General William Barr recommending the release of some federal prison inmates to home confinement who are especially vulnerable. Barr's recommendations focused on federal prisons that have seen the worst outbreaks, including the one in Oakdale, where several inmates have died. 

LeBlanc said state law permits him to grant furlough for inmates within six months of their release dates. That means Gov. John Bel Edwards won't need to become involved. Edwards, who is the only person with the authority to grant clemency requests, hasn't said whether he also plans to use that power in response to the pandemic. 

There are about 200 requests for sentence commutations that have already earned approval from the state pardon board and are awaiting the governor's signature. Those typically apply to older prisoners serving long sentences who demonstrate to the board that they've been rehabilitated over decades behind bars.

"Subjecting people who are already within six months of their release date to a cumbersome, one-sided review process does not go nearly far enough to avert a prison pandemic that would disproportionately impact people of color and further strain our healthcare system," said Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU. "We urge Governor Edwards to heed the advice of public health experts and use his executive power to reduce our prison population — before it's too late."

New lawsuit

Meanwhile prisoner rights organizations also filed a federal class action lawsuit Tuesday just hours before DOC's announcement, challenging the current practice of transferring local jail inmates from across the state to Angola for quarantine after their test results have come back positive. 

Those inmates are being housed in Angola's Camp J, a solitary confinement wing that was closed in 2018 amid safety concerns. DOC officials have stressed that the accommodations are isolated from other buildings and camps on "the sprawling Louisiana State Penitentiary property" and said that all inmates experiencing severe coronavirus symptoms would be sent to a hospital.

However, attorneys for the Promise of Justice Initiative and the Louisiana branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center note in their civil complaint that the closest hospital able to treat such patients is over an hour's drive from the remote maximum security prison.

The plan "will likely result in the death of dozens — if not hundreds or thousands — of people," attorneys allege.

DOC officials declined to comment on pending litigation.

The complaint also notes that Angola houses some of the oldest and most unhealthy state prisoners serving life and other long sentences who are at heightened risk of dying from coronavirus. More infections could strain the prison's "already broken medical system, and therefore impede the delivery of crucially needed health services," attorneys wrote.

This isn't the first time authorities have scrutinized Angola's medical program. A federal judge said in February that the care is unconstitutional in some respects, also in response to a separate class action suit, though the same judge denied a motion earlier this month seeking to halt the transfers to Camp J.

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