by Tribune Staff

One day after the State Department of Corrections announced a plan to furlough about 1,100 state inmates in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 in Louisiana’s prisons and jails throughout the state, criminal justice reform advocates criticized it as not doing enough to have an impact.

On April 14, the DOC issued a press release about its furlough plans and also provided details about it during Gov. John Bel Edwards daily press briefing.

As part of that plan, a COVID-19 Review Panel will be convened to review two separate groups of DOC inmates:

Group 1 includes inmates currently housed in state prison facilities with pre-existing medical conditions who meet the following criteria:

• Serving sentences for nonviolent/non-sex
offenses.

• Are currently within six months of their
release date.

• Have housing or residence ready to receive
them.

Group 2 includes offenders who are mostly housed in local jails and meet the following criteria:

• Serving sentences for nonviolent/non-sex
offenses

• Are currently within six months of their
release date and have served at least six
months.

• Have housing or residence ready to receive
them.

Probation and Parole may cancel an inmate’s temporary furlough at any time for any violation of conditions placed upon them and bring them back into custody to serve the remainder of time left until their release date.

That’s not good enough, criminal justice reform advocates say.

“That’s not even two percent of the total number of people incarcerated in Louisiana, not including those in ICE facilities or on probation or parole! Not only that, but the plan only applies to those who: are doing time for a nonviolent offense, are within six months of their release date, and already have a residence plan for their release,” said Norris Henderson of VOICE of the Experienced (VOTE) in statement released April 15. “Even worse, the review board–which includes no formerly incarcerated people–won’t begin until Friday (April 17), will only look at 40 cases at a time, and will require 5 of 6 board members to vote in favor of release. This is a negligible plan that isn’t informed by medical or public health experts; and doesn’t actually create any true social distancing within facilities.” 

Critics Also Decry Move to Transfer COVID-19 Positive Inmates to Angola

On April 14, Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections over its COVID-19 response, which includes transferring inmates who test positive for COVID-19 from various jails and prisons around the state INTO Camp J, a building at Angola that was closed in 2018 because of its condition.

The group wants those inmates sent to hospitals for treatment.

There are 32,000 inmates under DOC custody. Of those, 14,000 are housed in eight prisons around the state, while the other 18,000 are in parish prisons. As of 11 a.m. April 15, DOC reported 65 inmates and 52 staff members with positive COVID-19 tests. These numbers reflect inmates in state-run facilities only, and does not include test results for state inmates housed in parish jails.

The first inmate in a state prison facility tested positive for COVID-19 on March 28. The inmate was isolated and all individuals in this inmate’s housing unit quarantined at the facility for a 14-day period and were monitored daily by the DOC for signs and symptoms due to the potential exposure.

However, transferring COVID-19 positive inmates to Angola’s Camp J is inadequate, critics say.

“Moving sick people from around the state to a facility with no ventilators, no doctors, and a long way from adequate hospitals is wrong and will result in a public health disaster,” said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of The Promise of Justice Initiative, the organization representing those facing transfer. “This pandemic has taught us that everyone’s health depends on slowing the spread of this virus and responsibly treating those who test positive. Taken together, Louisiana’s incarcerated population would be our ninth-largest city; their treatment must adhere to the same public health principles as anyone else’s or outcomes will be worse for all of us.”

DOC Secretary Jim LeBlanc also talked about the plan to transfer COVID-19 positive inmates to Angola at the Tuesday press conference.

Citing the pending litigation, he didn’t directly address the issues raised in it, but defended the transfers as a way to mitigate future spread of COVID-19 among state prisoners, adding that about 46 DOC inmates from local jails were currently housed at Angola’s Camp J, along with that institution’s COVID-19 positive inmates. LeBlanc said the state’s eight prison facilities have their own quarantine plans in place for inmates at those facilities.

“I think it was the right move to make on our part, for the department, or obviously I wouldn’t be doing it. And it’s a safe haven for those who are there.

Families of inmates represented in the lawsuit have also spoken publicly about their concerns over the transfer COVID-19 positive inmates to Angola.

In a printed statement, Mary Major, whose husband has been tested, is presumed to be positive and is at risk of moving to Angola, said, “Right now, my concerns for my husband and his health are not being addressed. We’ve tried everything and now we’re turning to the courts for help. It’s scary because we know the administration is not making these decisions with my husband’s health or well-being in mind. I’m trying to get him home, so he doesn’t have to go through this in prison.”

“People all around Louisiana are practicing social distancing and doing everything else they can to limit the spread of COVID-19, but social distancing is not an option for incarcerated individuals, who are truly at the mercy of the state” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for SPLC. “The LDOC has a legal obligation to the people which it seems far too willing to ignore, in this moment of greatest need it incarcerates. For the sake of these individuals, their families, and Louisiana itself, we cannot allow anyone to be prevented from accessing adequate health care.”

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