Despite massive increases in the availability of COVID-19 tests and federal dollars to pay for them, testing protocols inside the Baton Rouge jail have not changed since the pandemic began.

Representatives for CorrectHealth, the embattled private company in charge of jail medical care, touted low case numbers inside the facility and praised their success combating the coronavirus during a presentation to the East Baton Rouge Metro Council earlier this week.

"We had everything in place to make sure we could keep our staff and inmates safe," said Phyllis McNeel, a CorrectHealth administrator. "I do believe we did an incredible job based on the numbers and statistics."

But several council members were unconvinced.

Case numbers are low because jail staff are still testing only symptomatic inmates, council members said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended mass testing inside correctional facilities and other congregate living settings over a year ago. An August 2020 report found about a 12% increase in cases when mass testing was administered in such facilities. 

Data from mass testing in Louisiana prisons last year also revealed massive outbreaks in some dorms, largely among people with no symptoms.

After hearing from local activists and people with incarcerated relatives during the Wednesday meeting, council members asked CorrectHealth to seriously consider ramping up testing, especially since federal money is widely available to cover the cost.

They also suggested sewage testing, something LSU uses to detect coronavirus outbreaks among students on campus.

"There's got to be a way to facilitate … more testing," said councilman Aaron Moak. "There's money out there to supply these tests. Please let us know if we can help."

McNeel said CorrectHealth staff had recently discussed the possibility of more testing with jail administrators, but the general consensus was that "the process seemed to be working" just fine.

"The numbers speak for themselves," McNeel said.

But Ashley White, who works for the national nonprofit The Bail Project in Baton Rouge, said she has personally taken inmates to get diagnosed upon their release and seen them test positive.

"These folks are leaving the jail, going back into the public and unknowingly exposing other people," she said. "We're kidding ourselves by thinking that we are catching everyone."

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Councilwoman Chauna Banks said people, businesses and government agencies everywhere have been making frequent changes to COVID protocols based on emerging science and shifting recommendations from experts. "But even to this day, CorrectHealth has not," she said.

A spokesperson for the East Baton Rouge sheriff, whose office oversees the local jail, said deputies will accommodate "whatever medical wants to do in terms of testing." But CorrectHealth representatives said jail administrators had been reluctant to expand testing in the past.

McNeel ultimately agreed that revisiting the testing program was a good idea.

The criticism over their COVID response comes at an uncertain time for CorrectHealth, which has already come under fire because of a high inmate death rate at Parish Prison.

Following public outcry over the deaths, city officials solicited proposals last year for a new $5.65 million contract providing prisoner medical care.

The bidding process is finally wrapping up: Officials have received the bids and a scoring committee is poised to present their recommendation to Metro Council, which gets the final vote. The recommendation and vote is expected in the coming weeks.

Records show CorrectHealth is among the seven bidders.

One key aspect of the new contract — no matter which company snags it — is a greater focus on mental health and addiction services, both inside the jail and upon release. Officials have said the ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism by getting people the support they need to stay out of jail.

Improving transparency is another aim.

Baton Rouge leaders have long bemoaned the state of the Parish Prison, which has been outdated and run down for years. Even the warden has called the existing jail deplorable for mental health patients.

But multiple proposals to build a new detention center have failed to garner enough public support.

Meanwhile, critics of the medical program have grown louder in recent years while the inmate death rate has remained well above the statewide and national average.

The pandemic further complicated the health care situation behind bars, and added urgency to demands from activists.

Despite the meager testing, CorrectHealth representatives said they have been offering COVID vaccines to all eligible inmates and giving them care packages in return for getting the shot.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.