By Matt Sledge | Nola.com | May 20, 2020
After nearly two weeks of decline, the number of inmates at the New Orleans jail testing positive for the novel coronavirus spiked to its highest point yet on Wednesday, raising concerns that the virus is infecting inmates who once appeared safe.
There were 94 inmates in Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office custody with confirmed infections as of Wednesday, with another 32 awaiting test results, the agency said.
Those numbers represent a sharp reversal from the nearly two-week long trend of declining numbers, from 88 positive inmates on May 1 to 60 on May 12. The jail was one of the first correctional institutions in Louisiana to test all inmates whether or not they displayed symptoms, and jail officials have said that many coronavirus carriers are asymptomatic.
Administrators said they believe the recent spike has been driven by inmates in a single section of the lock-up’s second floor.
Darnley Hodge, the jail’s court-appointed director, said two inmates on that tier who initially tested negative were put in isolation because they still displayed symptoms of COVID-19. A second round of testing revealed that the pair was indeed positive.
That prompted the Sheriff’s Office to test asymptomatic inmates in the 2F pod, which holds medium to high-security inmates. The new batch of tests revealed dozens of additional coronavirus-positive inmates, Hodge said.
Hodge, who’s tasked with running the jail under the lock-up’s court-ordered reform plan, declined to speculate on how the test results changed for the inmates who once tested negative.
However, even when properly administered, all coronavirus tests can produce “false negatives,” which suggest that people are virus-free when in fact they’ve been infected. False negative rates are highest in the initial days after exposure, according to scientific research.
Meanwhile, it’s also possible that inmates who had falsely tested negative exposed other inmates, or that the deputies who come and go at the jail may have created a new chain of transmission after the initial tests.
Hodge said the positive inmates from the affected pod have all been moved into quarantine and the Sheriff’s Office plans to re-test deputies who worked in that part of the jail. He expressed optimism that the spike in infections was confined to that pod.
Nevertheless, inmate advocates said they feared a wider outbreak.
“We are seeing an outbreak in the jail not just by the numbers but also reports from clients and their families,” said Danny Engelberg, chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders. “We are also really fearful that it’s still in areas that are not quarantined, and spreading rapidly through the jail. Particularly worrisome are the dorm areas.”
Elizabeth Cumming, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans who represents inmates as part of the federal reform agreement, said her group remained concerned about sanitation and isolation practices.
“To avoid sharing another wave of infection with the community, actors in the criminal justice system must continue taking every possible action to reduce the number of people in the jail,” she said.
Amid efforts by defense attorneys and with the approval of local judges, the jail’s population dropped by a quarter over the first month of Louisiana’s outbreak before plateauing in early April. The jail’s population was 825 inmates as of Wednesday.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission said in a report last week that 467 of the jail’s inmates were awaiting trial on violent felonies as of late April, and noted that 70% of misdemeanor inmates were held on suspicion of violent crimes like domestic assault.
However, advocates say that there are still far too many people held solely because of alleged probation and parole violations. The non-profit group Court Watch NOLA, which has called for an increased reliance on summonses in lieu of arrests, says that 65 percent of arrests since March 22 have been for non-violent crimes.