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Advocate file photo of Dixon Correctional Institute, taken on May 23, 2017, in Jackson, La..

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections is dealing with its latest coronavirus outbreak behind bars at Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, which houses a group of medically vulnerable inmates receiving dialysis treatment.

Officials started mass testing at Dixon several days ago and have discovered a large number of inmates tested positive but showed no symptoms, which is consistent to what they've seen in other state prisons.

So far almost 900 inmates have been tested, a little over half the prison's total population. The results show 331 of those men have tested positive — 303 of whom are considered asymptomatic. 

The prison recorded its first coronavirus death this week, according to data released on the DOC website. Officials said they tested only the main campus to start, because that's where the symptomatic positive cases had occurred, but will test more later if needed. It's not clear whether officials are accounting for asymptomatic positive cases in other areas of the prison.

The department has been rolling out a mass testing program across its entire prison population over the past few months. The results highlight the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers in congregate settings, where the virus spreads rapidly from one person to another.

Dixon is the only state prison with the capacity for treating dialysis patients. There are currently 61 men housed there for that reason, according to DOC spokesperson Ken Pastorick.

People require dialysis to treat kidney failure, which is one of the underlying medical conditions that makes patients more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19. Prisoner rights advocates and families of those inmates are worried that DOC officials aren't doing enough to effectively contain the outbreak and isolate this vulnerable group.

Pastorick said all the dialysis patients at Dixon were placed in reverse isolation quarters back in March. He didn't explain what exactly reverse isolation entails but said they're housed in a dorm and chapel adjacent to the dialysis center. Those areas are sanitized daily and the inmates don't leave except to go to the infirmary. 

However, one inmate on dialysis was recently removed from those living quarters and placed in a cell for disciplinary reasons. Another inmate, who had tested positive for the coronavirus, was placed in the cell across from him, according to the man's family and DOC officials. 

Pastorick noted that the two cells had a wall between them but were in the same building.

"At no point did these two inmates come into contact with each other," Pastorick said, adding that the sick inmate was moved after less than two days. He also noted that all inmates have been given cloth masks and instructed to wear them. 

"The dialysis inmate was placed into this cellblock for three rule violations that involved him smoking MOJO [synthetic marijuana] and getting sick," Pastorick said.

Dale Viola, the inmate's uncle, said he's convinced his nephew will die inside the prison unless corrections officials start taking the virus seriously. "If he gets infected, there's nothing anyone can do except demand justice from top to bottom," Viola said.

Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the New Orleans advocacy group Promise of Justice Initiative, said DOC should move the dialysis patients into safer temporary accommodations or grant them furlough. Pastorick didn't say whether those are options officials have considered.

"We have learned throughout the pandemic that we cannot be complacent and hope for the best," Montagnes said. "We must protect the vulnerable." 

DOC has taken little action to reduce the state's prison population despite recommendations from experts several months ago that releasing some inmates is the best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus behind bars. 

Email Lea Skene at