With the highest incarceration rate in the nation, Louisiana’s crowded prisons and what to do with them has been a topic of much debate for decades. Now, as New Orleans faces high COVID-19 infection rates in the world, a widespread outbreak in its overpopulated jails is a recipe for disaster. Refusing to take action will lead to preventable deaths and put already vulnerable communities at greater risk.

Over the past month in New Orleans, Operation Restoration’s Safety and Freedom Fund, in partnership with New Orleans public defenders, facilitated an emergency bail-out of 93 people at Orleans Parish Prison. The bail-out efforts were facilitated in response to a medical staffer at the jail who tested positive for coronavirus and rising concerns over how quickly COVID-19 could spread across a vulnerable jail population living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.

This shines a light on a broader problem in our criminal justice system, overcrowded jails filled with people with misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses. Now is the time — more than ever — to aid bailout efforts, especially seeing as research by the Brennan Center for Justice shows that nearly half of the people in prison don’t present a public safety concern.

Most importantly, bailout efforts should not end there. Once released from jail, resources need to be provided for people affected by the system to help them successfully re-enter society, avoid being re-incarcerated and become established in the community as productive and responsible citizens.

Going home after being in prison is a very challenging transition for those that have been incarcerated, as well as for their families and communities. Without the proper resources and intervention, studies show that three-fourths are rearrested within five years of their release. To break this cycle, effective criminal justice reform measures need to be in place in order to help them successfully re-enter society, avoid being re-incarcerated and become established in the community as productive and responsible citizens.

Especially now, as some people behind bars are being released due to the heightened risk of COVID-19, criminal justice reform is of the utmost importance in order to aid and empower their transition from the prison system back into communities. Without these essential resources, formerly incarcerated people are disadvantaged educationally, economically and socially, which in turn further hinders their successful re-entry back into society. Now, as COVID-19 ravages our nation, we need to restructure our criminal justice system with the release of people in prison due to COVID-19 and advocate for the safety of the vulnerable jail population.

SYRITA STEIB

executive director, Operation Restoration

New Orleans