August 17, 2020
New Orleans, La – Today, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) reported 1,003 cases of COVID-19 in Louisiana’s state prisons. This troubling milestone confirms that COVID-19 is still spreading and is still a threat to incarcerated Louisianans and surrounding communities. Since March, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections DOC has provided test results for nine DOC facilities. The numbers have climbed steadily over the past months and only reflect a portion of people held in DOC custody. This consistent increase of infections calls attention to the failures of the Louisiana Department of Corrections to effectively address this disaster. A person incarcerated in a DOC facility has a 126% higher chance of testing positive than the State’s rate. They have a 29% higher chance of dying from COVID than those of us outside the prison walls.
Reverend Alexis Anderson, a leader of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition says, “These 1,000 reported positive cases are only a fraction of the COVID outbreaks occurring in Louisiana’s detention facilities. We have tens of thousands of people in DOC and sheriff custody held in our local jails which, if they’re testing at all, are not providing data on COVID spread. This problem is much worse than it even appears with no plan in sight coming out of DOC or the Governor’s office.”
Black Louisianans are disproportionately impacted by both COVID and incarceration through inequities that are systemic and intentional. Systems of mass incarceration reflect and contribute to racial injustice. This current crisis is no exception. In July as part of the Governor’s Health Equity Task Force, a subcommittee of experts specifically dedicated to prison and jail populations produced a report with evidence-based recommendations to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities through population reduction, widespread testing, and transparent data sharing. These recommendations have not yet been implemented.
The outsized impact that COVID continues to have on our incarcerated population is not chance or happenstance but the result of systemic failures. For instance, despite living in densely populated conditions with limited ability to socially distance, people incarcerated at DOC facilities are tested at a rate significantly lower (up to 5 times lower) than Louisiana as a whole. Additionally, access to PPE is inadequate and medical isolation protocols are inconsistent and poorly administered.
Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, Mercedes Montagnes, says, “Even before the pandemic, the standard of medical care provided at Louisiana’s largest state prison, Angola, was found to be unconstitutional. The DOC medical system doesn’t have the resources or professional knowledge to treat a paper cut much less the continued transmission of a highly contagious and dangerous virus. It is unconscionable that State leadership at every level has failed to address the continued spread of COVID among incarcerated populations and correctional staff. The virus itself cannot be caged. We are all at risk.”
The conditions in our prisons contribute to COVID’s spread among incarcerated people and those that work in these locations who are then compromised as they return home to their families. The rate of positive COVID tests is 227% higher for DOC staff than it is for the rest of the State. The DOC prison staff rate of death from COVID is 51% higher than the State’s. Many of these workers are paid low wages and not provided with the proper PPE, training, or guidance to stop the spread of this virus from harming themselves and their loved ones.
“There is no reason to suspect that these trends will improve as long as we continue to approach a public health crisis with security solutions,” says Katie Hunter-Lowrey, Crime Survivor Organizer of the Louisiana Survivors for Reform Coalition. “This is unacceptable and is a moral indictment at every level of decision making. The State’s choice to treat people as prisoners first and patients second is immoral and ineffective. These policies threaten the health of our whole State. There is no such thing as prison COVID and regular COVID. The same best practices and standards of care apply no matter where the patient lives. The Promise of Justice will continue to fight for community members incarcerated in DOC facilities and advocate for solutions that promote public health and safety for all.”