Rust, leaks, other problems plague Baton Rouge prison (copy)

A prisoner sits in his cell in February 2015 at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

The Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is calling on corrections officials and law enforcement leaders to reduce the state's jail and prison populations as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb. 

The ACLU released a statement Wednesday demanding expedited parole hearings for elderly state prison inmates and the immediate release of all people jailed awaiting trial who aren't considered a risk to public safety. 

Their request came amid growing concern about the spread of the virus in Louisiana, which is sheathed in uncertainty as state officials scramble to administer tests and treat the patients who have already tested positive. That number had climbed to 13 — distributed across six parishes — as of Wednesday evening and is expected to continue rising, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced at a news conference. 

Three of the cases are at a New Orleans retirement home, Lambeth House, where health officials are working to stem the spread. Officials and health experts have said the virus poses the greatest risk for the elderly and people with preexisting health conditions, particularly respiratory problems. 

Prisoner rights advocates argue that people who fall into those categories shouldn't be incarcerated during the outbreak, if at all possible. 

"Given the CDC's warnings about avoiding confined spaces and the threat COVID-19 poses to the frail and elderly, immediate steps must be taken to safeguard the health and well-being of incarcerated people across the state," said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms Hebert. "We know that confining people in close quarters increases the risk of infection, but right now thousands of Louisianans are incarcerated based on the mere accusation of a crime and an inability to pay bail."

Most people being held pretrial are incarcerated in local jails, which inherently see a tremendous amount of inmate turnover. Advocates said anyone who hasn't been convicted of a crime — and doesn't pose a risk to public safety — should be allowed to leave detention facilities during the outbreak. They said keeping those inmates incarcerated puts their health in jeopardy simply because they're too poor to post bail. 

Advocates also noted that standard recommended practices to avoid the virus, such as more frequent handwashing and the use of hand sanitizer, aren't possible in jails and prisons. Some inmates could have limited access to sinks, and alcohol based hand sanitizer is widely considered contraband. 

The Louisiana Department of Corrections hasn't provided comment on their plans and protocols in place to mitigate the impacts of coronavirus among the state's inmate population. Officials also haven't responded to questions about testing for inmates experiencing possible coronavirus symptoms. 


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.