December 14, 2020
New Orleans, La – Tomorrow, the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) will hold a press conference and release a thorough and disturbing report analyzing the ongoing abysmal response of local and state leadership to COVID-19 in Louisiana’s detention facilities. Locked in with COVID-19: A Review of How the 2020 Pandemic Ravaged Louisiana’s Prisons, Jails, and Detention Centers details how the lack of action to address this deadly virus caused widespread illness and death in the early days of the pandemic. The gross misconduct by prison officials continues to impact the state as outbreaks in prison, jail, juvenile detention, and ICE facilities are ongoing and none of the recommendations made by health experts have yet been implemented.
According to the research compiled by the New Orleans based nonprofit, Louisiana officials at all levels, from the Governor’s office to the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) to the Department of Corrections (DOC), endangered those in their custody by, “failing to implement mass testing and preventative measures, quarantining people in areas of prisons that had been previously closed due to decaying conditions, and failing to provide adequate medical care to those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.” As numbers of positive cases increase across the state, these failures continue to have deleterious health effects and take the lives of those who are held in or work in detention facilities as well as their surrounding communities.
Dr. Anjali Niyogi is the Associate Professor of Internal Medicine & Pediatrics at Tulane School of Medicine and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Tulane School of Public Health. She is a hospitalist at University Medical Center, a co-founder and co-director of the Resident Initiative in Global Health at Tulane, the founder and director of the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic in New Orleans, and a volunteer physician with the asylum network with Physician for Human Rights. She said, “There are immediate solutions to the public health crisis we are seeing in detention facilities across Louisiana. Though COVID-19 rocked the medical and political community when it first entered our borders and homes, our understanding of the virus and how to prevent its spread has expanded rapidly. The answers are clear. If the Governor were to require mass testing and reduce the population of those held in congregate living, we would be faced with much less loss, illness, and tragedy in the coming months.”
Locked in with COVID-19 sheds light on lost opportunities by Louisiana officials to head off the cascading outbreaks in prisons and jails. A Review Panel convened in April was to consider furloughs for a small percentage of people in DOC custody who were within the final six months of a sentence for a nonviolent, non-sex-offense. When the panel was discontinued, only 63 people had been released of the potential 1,200 considered, comprising 0.2 percent of the total number in DOC custody. This narrow and ineffective venture did not effectively reduce DOC population to COVID-safe levels and ultimately cost the State over 2 million dollars during a time of economic and financial disaster.
According to PJI, “Between those who were eligible for review but denied release by the panel, and those who were granted release but not actually released immediately, the DOC incarcerated people for months unnecessarily during the pandemic. As of November 4, those individuals reviewed by the Panel had been held for a combined total of at least 97,819 days past review. At a cost of $26.39 per day, the state spent over $2,549,000 incarcerating people who were within the final six months of their sentences for nonviolent, non-sex-offenses—during a pandemic. These funds could have been spent on testing, PPE, hospital equipment, isolation facilities, staffing, vaccine availability, or countless other resources that could have helped, rather than hurt, Louisianans.”
The report also highlights that the racial disparities seen across the country in health outcomes related to COVID-19 are especially pronounced in carceral settings where people of color and those with pre-existing medical conditions are disproportionately represented. Though many legal and advocacy actions have been taken since March to spur response from state officials, they have been sidelined by those in power. As of December 4th, 2,586 incarcerated people and 599 DOC employees were infected with COVID-19, and 31 incarcerated people and 5 staff had died despite prevention measures that could have saved them.
Duong Cao was released from the DOC’s custody earlier this year after contracting and recovering from COVID. The pardon board recommended him for a pardon in 2015 and he was still waiting for the paperwork to be signed when he contracted COVID-19 while being held at the State Police Barracks in Zachary, where he was considered an essential worker. “Being incarcerated during the pandemic, and especially being transferred to Camp J after I got COVID-19, was terrifying. I should have been out already when I got COVID and I was so afraid I would die from the virus before being released. Camp J was full of mold, rats, mice, and spiders – it was the worst place for COVID patients like me to be held. I am so grateful every day that I survived and have been able to come home to my family.”
Executive Director, Mercedes Montagnes, said, “People in jail and prisons are five and a half times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 and three times more likely to die from the virus than those of us on the outside. Despite all we have learned about how easily the virus spreads in congregate settings, the state stands by and ignores medical recommendations, available resources, and pleas for help from the families of the people in their care. Our clients are being sentenced to death by a gruesome virus. It is not too late to take action and we strongly urge that the recommendations from this report be implemented without delay.”
The press conference will take place at 10 am CST, Tuesday December 15th. Media are invited to attend. The event can be accessed via zoom here: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86810261692?pwd=QTE0Rkp3SEhsRCtvamdXMEpRS0t5dz09
Meeting ID: 868 1026 1692
The report can be viewed here.
Director of Civil Litigation, Promise of Justice Initiative