Close quarters, preexisting health conditions and limited access to soap and hand sanitizer make Louisiana's prisons and jails potential breeding grounds for the spreading coronavirus — in a state that remains the incarceration capital of the world.
There have been no confirmed cases of the virus inside Louisiana detention facilities, though more than a dozen state residents in several parishes have tested positive pending confirmation.
"We know that people in jails and prisons have much higher rates of chronic medical conditions than the general population. That translates to a much higher risk of mortality from the coronavirus," said Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York City's Rikers Island jail.
"Once it arrives in our communities, it will show up in jails and prisons. That's the reality."
Changes in state prisons
The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections has suspended visitation at Louisiana's eight prison facilities for at least the next month and indefinitely postponed the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola's spring rodeo, officials announced Thursday.
Corrections officials said that in lieu of in-person visitation, they're "working to expand access to telephone services to ensure inmates have continued connection to family and friends during this event."
The department has also implemented a screening process for anyone entering prison facilities, including staff and vendors, department spokesman Ken Pastorick said in a statement. Tours and volunteer group visits will also be suspended for the next month.
"While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside of these institutions, the department has made the decision to protect the vulnerable incarcerated populations (and) staff and to help reduce the spread of this disease," Pastorick said, adding that policies will be reevaluated after 30 days.
He also confirmed that some inmates are currently being quarantined with flu symptoms, which he said is normal protocol for flu outbreaks in DOC facilities. But he couldn't say how many are being quarantined or whether any of those inmates have been tested for coronavirus. He said it's up to the Louisiana Department of Health to determine when testing should take place based on an inmate's symptoms, then provide the tests.
Corrections staff who are experiencing flu symptoms have been asked to stay home and facilities will be sanitized more frequently, Pastorick said. Hand sanitizer will be made available to inmates, and soap and paper towels will be frequently restocked in bathrooms.
Prison advocates call for action
Louisiana prisoner rights advocates are urging officials to release some inmates before it's too late — in particular those with underlying health issues who don't pose a significant risk to public safety.
The Louisiana affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement Thursday demanding expedited parole hearings for elderly inmates and the immediate release on "humanitarian parole" for the almost 9,000 people in immigration detention in Louisiana.
"Immediate steps must be taken to safeguard the health and well-being of incarcerated people across the state," ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms Hebert said. "We know that confining people in close quarters increases the risk of infection, but right now, thousands of Louisianians 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 inmates facing minor charges who haven't been convicted of a crime should be allowed to leave detention facilities during the outbreak, rather than risking their health because they can't afford bail.
DOC officials have not responded to advocates' calls for prisoner releases and Pastorick said there has been no discussion of taking such measures.
Public defenders in New Orleans have started requesting reduced bail amounts for some of their clients, citing the experiences of inmates in China and Iran, where COVID-19 has already hit hard. Iran, which has about a quarter of the incarceration rate of Louisiana, has responded to the crisis by temporarily freeing 54,000 prisoners.
"We need to decide who needs to be locked up right now and get some people out. This is a vulnerable population facing a global pandemic," said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans. "If Iran can do it, certainly we can, too."
Adding to activists' concerns: The quality of prison health care was already under scrutiny before the coronavirus arrived in the U.S. A federal judge said in February, in response to a class-action lawsuit, that medical care at Angola is unconstitutional in some respects.
Advocates also said now is not the time for law enforcement to be booking people into jail for minor and nonviolent offenses.
"If we're going to be locking people up for minor traffic violations, misdemeanors and even minor felonies, we really need to be thinking about whether it's worth putting their lives at risk, which is what we would be doing unwittingly," Montagnes said. "This is an opportunity to take a critical look at who we're putting in jail."
Both New Orleans and Baton Rouge host massive numbers of people being held awaiting trial, with pretrial detention rates well above the national average and among the highest in the state. Officials in both parishes said they're ramping up intake screenings for inmates and are prepared to isolate people who arrive with possible coronavirus symptoms.
Inmates and guards are also being encouraged to wash their hands as often as possible. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office confirmed that most hand sanitizers are considered contraband because of their alcohol content but said jail staff are passing out extra soap.
Anyone booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison who displays symptoms will be sent to the hospital, officials said.
The New Orleans jail has the capacity to collect specimens from inmates with suspected cases and send the samples out for testing, said Health Services Administrator Nina Jo Howard. "The safety of inmates and staff is our highest priority, so we'll continue to take the precautions necessary and make the changes necessary," she said.
Despite those steps, which Howard outlined at a New Orleans City Council hearing on Wednesday, inmate advocates said they were still waiting on a formal plan from the jail. Elizabeth Cumming, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents inmates in a court-ordered reform plan, said the group supports "measures that experts and other trained personnel recommend to keep people in the jail as safe as possible from this disease, including available reductions in the jail's population."
The Louisiana Sheriffs' Association is keeping sheriffs informed about best practices and "precautions to prevent, treat and handle a coronavirus situation, should it occur in our jails," the group said in a statement Wednesday. That includes procedures in place to test patients who are experiencing symptoms.
Several jails across the state have taken steps to limit visitation — including Tangipahoa, Ascension, Livingston and St. James parishes — while others are considering such changes.
Advocates noted that recommended practices such as "social distancing" are often impossible behind bars, especially in overcrowded parish detention centers.
It remains to be seen how court operations could be affected as the virus continues to spread.
Orleans Parish Chief Criminal Court Judge Karen Herman said the court will curtail the hours of jury service and the number of jurors called but is not ending it altogether. Potential jurors are being encouraged to qualify electronically or over the phone rather than in person. Officials are also exploring the expanded use of teleconferencing for some hearings.
The Orleans Public Defenders are calling for the release of low-risk pretrial inmates as well as the indefinite postponement of hearings for defendants who are out on bail or their own recognizance. Court officials have been briefed on both requests but haven't made any commitments.
Officials in East Baton Rouge said they're putting together a task force to determine how to address potential impacts of the coronavirus on the local criminal justice system, which could include requests to release some inmates awaiting trial, according to the parish public defenders office. No specific changes have been announced.
Staff writers Jacqueline DeRobertis and David Mitchell contributed to this report.