Advocates for Louisiana prisoners called Wednesday for the state to select an independent health monitor to track the safety of inmates in the coronavirus outbreak, urging Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration to do more furloughs because of the health risks.
A furlough program the Department of Corrections used earlier this year released only a few dozen people, drawing criticism that it did too little to lessen the spread of COVID-19 or help those most at risk of serious harm from the coronavirus illness.
Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced — an ex-offenders advocacy group known as VOTE, told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday that the furloughs largely released people who "were going home anyway." He said the state needs a "COVID compliance monitor" who tracks that the corrections department is following public health guidance in its response to the pandemic.
Reilly said the coronavirus — and the prison lockdowns that have followed the outbreak — are worsening illness, stress and anxiety among inmates. He warned that could increase violence within facilities and suicides among prisoners.
"On the inside, it's a tinderbox," Reilly told the House criminal justice committee.
Vanessa Spinazola, executive director of the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, said Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc could do more releases under his existing legal authority, without needing the furlough review panel he created earlier this year. She described the review process enacted as unnecessarily restrictive.
Louisiana has about 32,000 state inmates, housed in a mix of state-run prisons, private prisons and jails operated by parish sheriffs.
When the corrections department announced its coronavirus furlough program that operated from April until early June, the agency said as many as 1,100 inmates could be eligible for temporary release, those convicted of nonviolent, non-sex-offense crimes who were within the last six months of their sentences.
The idea was to reduce the population in facilities where people were packed closely together and more vulnerable to the virus' spread.
But the six-person review panel evaluated 594 cases, according to Natalie LaBorde, with the corrections department. Only 68 of those were released on furlough, 34 of whom have since been released from state custody entirely. The review panel was suspended in June.
Five votes were required for an inmate to be furloughed. The meetings were held behind closed doors, with no public access to the deliberations or decision-making.
LaBorde defended the corrections department's approach both to COVID-19 and to the furlough process. She said the agency has limited discretion to release an inmate early, under a decades-old law on the books. She said the state has developed coronavirus guidance for its facilities, revised regularly and based on the latest recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Each state prison has an isolation unit to house people who test positive for the coronavirus, she said.
Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican, said a smaller percentage of the prison population has died from COVID-19 than across the larger Louisiana population. Twenty-two inmates at Louisiana's state prisons have died from COVID-19, according to corrections department data.
Bacala cited that data, along with the testing performed at state facilities, to say he saw no need to make changes to the current approach the corrections department was using for the coronavirus.
"The policies look like they're working just fine," Bacala said.
Several advocates for the incarcerated provided anecdotal reports about lack of testing, particularly in sheriffs' jails where thousands of state inmates are housed.
Rep. Ted James, the Baton Rouge Democrat who chairs the House criminal justice committee, said he's going to ask the governor to consider restarting the furlough review process again.