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COVID-19 And Incarceration: ‘It’s Going To Be Worse Than Nursing Homes And Cruise Ships’

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Bart Everson
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Louisiana officials are facing rising scrutiny as COVID-19 spreads through jails and prisons in the state, facilities that critics argue are perfect breeding grounds for the highly contagious and deadly virus.

Two more people held at the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana died from COVID-19 this week, bringing the total inmates killed there to three—the first coronavirus deaths of any federal inmates in the nation.

The news came the same day as federal inmates began a 14-day quarantine to stem the spread of the virus in prisons, and amid increased criticism over whether and how Louisiana officials are protecting the health of people behind bars.

One of the men was 43-year-old Nicholas Rodriquez, who died Wednesday after first falling ill on March 25 with a high temperature and a rapid heartbeat. He was transferred to a local hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19, and later put on a ventilator when his condition deteriorated.

The other was a 57-year-old man named James Wilson, who fell ill on March 29 and also died Wednesday in hospital after being placed on a ventilator.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said both men had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list as risk factors for developing more severe COVID-19 disease.

The low-security Oakdale facility where they were held has seen a rampant outbreak of the coronavirus. It’s so widespread that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is no longer testing inmates there — it’s simply assuming anyone with symptoms has COVID-19.

The deaths are just one indication of the destruction this virus could cause inside Louisiana's vast network of prisons and jails.

Ronald Morris, a maintenance foreman at the prison and president of the prison’s union local, said at least 18 inmates have tested positive, dozens more have symptoms and a dozen more were in local hospitals. Meanwhile, 17 staff have tested positive, including one who was in an intensive care unit.

“The biggest statement I hear from staff is that and they're just scared. They're scared to get this. They're scared they're gonna bring this home to their families,” Morris said.

There are staffing shortages and long shifts lasting 12 hours or more. Masks and hand sanitizer for staff are running short. It’s a problem across the criminal justice system in the state.

According to Lloyd Permaul, the deputy administrator for Council 17 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents state prison employees in Louisiana, staff at one state prison have been told they only get one mask for two weeks.

“And if they lose the mask, they will not be issued another one,” Permaul said.

Some facilities have run out of hand sanitizer for staff, “so they’re bringing their own,” he added.

This week, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that an employee of the state department of corrections has died from COVID-19, but gave no details about where that person worked. The Department of Public Safety and Corrections has reported that five inmates and 14 staff have tested positive across state prisons.

But Wendy Matherne has heard the number of COVID-19 cases among prisoners is far greater than official statistics indicate. Matherne’s adult son is incarcerated at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, where two staff have tested positive according to the state. But Matherne says her son and others at the prison told her the virus is already among inmates.

“They also believe that some of the residents, community members is what we refer to them as, have tested positive,” said Matherne, who’s also an advocate with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children.

She’s been told that inmates have not been given extra soap since the start of the pandemic— and hand sanitizer is considered contraband for inmates because of its high alcohol content.

“The only hand washing instructions that have been given were via a flyer that was posted on a bulletin board,” she said.

Matherne described the close quarters of state prisons, where 33 to 120 people share five toilets, one shower room with four shower heads and one cooler for beverages. “So that's 33 to 120 pairs of hands on all of those surfaces.” And she said inmates were disinfecting their own spaces, but without the protective gear that would insure those who might have COVID-19 aren’t spreading it further.

And while she said she has respect for the Department of Corrections, she said information on how staff and inmates are being kept safe has been exceedingly scarce.

“I do feel like I'm in the dark,” Matherne said.

Advocates are calling for the release of non-violent and vulnerable people.

As of December 2019, roughly 31,000 people were held in Louisiana state jails and prisons, the majority of whom are black men, and nearly one-sixth were over the age of 55 — a demographic at particular risk in this pandemic.

As the coronavirus has spread across the state and made New Orleans a global hotspot for infections, prison reform and civil rights groups have been sounding the alarm. They say prisons are incubators for the disease — and prisoners have no control of whether or how they protect themselves.

Civil rights groups and advocates who spoke to New Orleans Public Radio praised the governor’s overall response to the pandemic, but they say incarceration could be a deadly blindspot.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered federal prisons to release elderly or sick prisoners held for non-violent offenses — a directive that some have criticized for favoring those convicted of white-collar crimes, who tend to be white.

Across Louisiana’s criminal justice system, facilities are reducing who can enter, screening people for fevers, passing out protective equipment to staff, and isolating sick and COVID-19-positive inmates. Edwards told reporters this week that sheriffs and the courts were working to decrease the number of pretrial detainees around the state held in jails, and that probation and parole officers were also minimizing the numbers they take into custody.

But advocates argue it’s not enough. They say the number one way to stop the virus’s spread is to depopulate facilities.

“CDC guidelines and recommendations really require a set of practices that are virtually impossible to effectuate in jails and prisons,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “There have not been any protocols released at the Department of Corrections, or anything released to us by the governor that indicates a plan to decarceration these populations.”

She called for a coordinated plan between the state supreme court, the governor’s office and corrections officials, DA’s and Sheriffs, arguing that if thinning the prison population isn’t “addressed head on, it could be catastrophic.”

The ACLU is calling for the immediate suspension of arrests for misdemeanors or felonies that don’t involve an imminent risk of violence, and the issue of summons instead of arrests for serious but non-violent drug and property crimes.

VOTE, the New Orleans-based criminal justice reform group, wants the state to release people who are within six months of the end of their sentence and give medical parole to anyone with conditions that put them at risk of serious illness from the coronavirus, and to those older than 60. It wants masks and gloves distributed to the incarcerated population, and it wants a coronavirus oversight committee to be created in the Office of Public Health.

“The real challenge inside this environment or any other environment like this is there's no real social distancing,” said Norris Henderson, the executive director of VOTE. “I mean, it's just humanly impossible to have the 6 feet of space among folks inside.”

Henderson said he met with the secretary of public safety and corrections, James Le Blanc, on Tuesday. He said he was told that inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, would soon begin making masks, and that new inmates were being quarantined for 14 days.

Henderson said he’s hopeful the governor and department of corrections will soon have a plan to release inmates safely.

“They're concerned because at the end of the day, nobody wants this to happen on their watch.”

The Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to New Orleans Public Radio’s requests for comment.

On Tuesday, the Promise of Justice Initiative sued the state seeking a temporary restraining order to bar officials from moving COVID-positive inmates to Angola. It’s one of two facilities the department of corrections said it planned to use to house inmates ill with COVID-19 who can’t be cared for in the facilities where they fall sick. The group is also in the midst of a class-action lawsuit against the state over medical care at Anloga.

Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer and the initiative’s executive director, said the plan shocked her.

“We have the highest death rate of any prisons in the country in Louisiana. We spend the smallest amount on medical care of any prisons in the country in Louisiana. We already have an extremely taxed system and we're going to bring more COVID-19 into that facility?” she said.

She called for detailed information on ventilators and palliative care plans, and — as others — decarceration.

“If we don't, it's going to be worse than nursing homes and cruise ships,” she said.

The New Orleans jail is one place that has seen some success in releasing people, but not everyone is on board.

Last week, Orleans Parish District Court judges issued a blanket order to release anyone held at the jail who is either awaiting trial for a misdemeanor offense, was arrested for failure to appear at a probation status hearing, was being held in contempt of court, or who was there for failing a drug screening while on bond.

Those measures have reduced the jail population from over 1,000 a few weeks ago to 776. Sheriff Marlin Gusman has also asked judges for the ability to release everyone held on non-violent charges without a criminal history and to suspend arrests for non-violent charges for 30 days.

“We felt we had to take more steps,” Gusman said. “I think it's critical that we do this out of an abundance of caution and also because it's just right.”

While New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office has previously said releasing prisoners could spread the virus, it said in a statement that it is supporting the sheriff's effort to continue to reduce the jail population. But it warned that “only a tiny fraction” of those still in the jail are there on non-violent offenses.

Advocates at the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition are in particular condemning the office of New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell for not suspending all arrests for non-violent offenses.

“It's problematic that our administration has not spoken on this, and that the mayor has not taken adequate action to mitigate harm to law enforcement personnel and the people detained in the jail,” said Sade Dumas, the group’s executive director.

Last week, nearly two-dozen public health professors from Tulane University warned that by the time the first cases of COVID-19 showed up in New Orleans’ jail, it would be too late to “prevent a large epidemic” among the jail population and staff. As of April 1, 19 employees, two inmates and six contractors at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19, with dozens more awaiting test results and one inmate hospitalized.

Even youth in jail are at risk.

This week, the Office of Juvenile Justice said three young people had tested positive, two at a facility in Bridge City and one in Baton Rouge, and so had one staff member. It said preparation is underway for remote learning, weeks after schools across the state made that transition.

“I'm surprised that that preparation wouldn't have been undertaken long before now,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, who heads the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which advocates for detained youth.

“We know it's going to spread like wildfire through these cramped facilities and therefore out into the larger community if no action is taken,” he said. “The Office of Juvenile Justice needs to identify kids who do not pose a risk to public safety. The judges need to bring these kids home. And district attorneys need to agree to the release of these children in order to speed up this process.”

It's more than statistics, it's people.

Ronald Morris, who works at the federal prison in Oakdale, said the virus is terrifying to watch.

“It is very scary to look into the eyes of an inmate on a respirator, fighting for his every breath, and [you] don't know if he's gonna make it,” he said. “I hope to God I did not have to witness a staff member or friend or family member [in that state]. But it is a very real enemy.”

For Wendy Matherne, whose son remains in a state prison, the conversation on how to beat this pandemic has left her family out.

“We're being told to not hoard things, but to share them with others,” she said. “We're being told to frequent small businesses because it's important to keep their livelihood going. But no one is saying to think about my child. No one is saying that he's just as important.”

This is a lot to keep up with.

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Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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