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Contractors and inmates from Dixon Correctional Institute move about on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, completing work on and near the podium and other structures, as well as placing plants to beautify the area. They were getting the area ready for Monday's inauguration ceremonies for Governor John Bel Edwards, who recently won a second term. Hundreds of American flags will go out Sunday, placed in the Louisiana Capitol Garden and along nearby streets.

Louisiana’s prisons department has suspended its inmate work crews program from Dixon Correctional Institute after two inmates tested positive for COVID-19, the agency confirmed Thursday, as the prison sees a spike in cases.

Inmates from Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson are bused the 30 miles south to work in the State Capitol and other government buildings in downtown Baton Rouge, where they clean, cook and perform landscaping for up to 70 cents an hour, or credit toward an earlier release.

Two inmates came down with symptoms Monday and were “immediately tested,” Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said in a statement. Both tested positive for COVID-19 when results came back Tuesday.

The agency tested 171 inmates who are part of the work crews that clean office buildings, do litter pickup in the greater Baton Rouge area or live in the same unit that houses the work crews. Those test results were pending.

But the corrections department’s dashboard of coronavirus testing data shows Dixon has more than 400 inmates who are currently positive with COVID-19. The majority, 393, are asymptomatic, and 25 are symptomatic.

Pastorick said he did not know when the work crew program might resume. 

Since the agency began mass testing of the prisons this summer, 549 inmates have tested positive, out of 1,212 total inmates tested. The agency has confirmed one coronavirus death at Dixon.

In addition to the Dixon work crews, Louisiana State Police houses about 140 prisoners at its 1,600-acre Zachary compound, where roughly 30 of the inmates who are isolated from the others who go to the Governor’s Mansion and other state offices to perform custodial duties, landscaping and other tasks, State Police spokesman Doug Cain said. That program is still up and running.

Pastorick said the Department of Corrections had already shifted the schedule for the work crews to the night shift to try to limit interaction between inmates and state workers.

“The two positive inmates are in medical isolation, and the crews in this unit are in quarantine,” he said.

The inmate work crews have come under fire from some African-American lawmakers who are uncomfortable with cheap inmate labor at the State Capitol and other state-owned buildings. The Department of Corrections has said the program saves the state money and is beneficial to inmates by allowing them to develop skills interacting with people.

Coronavirus testing at state prisons has revealed hundreds of positive tests. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola currently has 45 positive inmates, with 11 of them showing symptoms. Across all prisons, nearly 1,700 inmates have tested positive for the virus.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com