Time is running out. Our opportunity to make the parish jail in New Orleans as safe as possible is dwindling. We must, right now, meet the needs of deputies, support staff and medical professionals. To contain and prevent the rapid and uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, we must limit the number of people in the jail. We must understand that jail health is directly tied to community health.
In New York City, the first person tested positive for COVID-19 in jail on March 18. The virus then spread quickly. As of April 2, 231 inmates and 223 corrections staff and health workers were positive. The number is still rapidly rising.
The chief medical officer of New York City’s correctional health service wrote he was “raising the alarm” because there is a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.” Limited staff and the inability for effective social distancing means it is unlikely even herculean efforts can slow or stop the swift spread. The chief medical officer pleaded for more people to be released to lower the death toll.
Here in New Orleans, the sheriff last week announced two people held in our jail tested positive. Many more staff and medical workers are infected and quarantined. Staffing is greatly depleted, making access to medical care and treatment scarce and challenging at all levels.
Simply put, jail is inherently unsafe. However, to be as safe as possible, it has to be as small as possible. Our jail population is at a historic low. Leaders within the criminal legal system and community advocates have worked hard to decrease the jail size, but much more is urgently needed.
The Orleans Public Defenders recently identified more than 200 people who can safely be released. We have sent these clients to both the court and the Department of Corrections for consideration. But we must act immediately to prevent, and not imitate, the disaster unfolding in New York City.
Additionally, we must do more to decrease the number of people entering the jail. No more arrests and bookings on nonviolent charges and misdemeanors until we get control over the spread of this disease. We can maintain public safety without sacrificing public health.
Doctors and public health officials are sounding the alarm about the pending disaster at our jail. It is time to heed those warnings and act. The New York chief doctor says the jail is in a crisis “of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen.” Let’s take steps to save lives and prevent further spread of this virus.
chief defender, Orleans Parish Public Defenders