By Matt Sledge and Lea Skene | Nola.com | April 25, 2020
A federal judge made his dismay plain this week after he surveyed the conditions inside a state prison in Washington Parish with at least 29 confirmed coronavirus cases.
Nearly 80 prisoners were sleeping in bunks an arm’s length apart in the Rayburn Correctional Center and standing “shoulder to shoulder” in line at the infirmary, according to the testimony of a 35-year-old inmate with diabetes who is serving time for attempted murder. Cleaning supplies were scant. Personal protective equipment was being used only sporadically.
“The court finds it troubling that DOC [Department of Corrections] officials, at least at Rayburn, have apparently disregarded the importance of social distancing in preventing the spread of this unique disease,” U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, based in Baton Rouge, wrote in a court order.
But Jackson declined to free the prisoner, Christopher Marlowe, instead asking state officials to come up with a plan to better protect him. Diabetes is among the pre-existing conditions that can make a coronavirus infection more deadly.
Jail and prisons in Louisiana initially responded to the pandemic with extra soap and temperature checks, but the coronavirus has crept into nearly every major detention center in the state regardless.
Hundreds of Louisiana inmates and correctional employees have now tested positive for coronavirus, and wardens across the state are entering a new phase of their response: hoping to limit the death toll.
Now jailers, politicians and judges are scrambling to contain the problem amid equipment shortages and staffing issues while wrestling with larger questions, such as whether to conduct mass testing and whether inmates convicted of violent crimes like Marlowe can be safely released.
Because of their close quarters, prisons — like nursing homes and meatpacking plants — are seen as efficient spreaders of the highly contagious virus. It’s a particularly acute crisis in Louisiana, which has long had the No. 1 or No. 2 incarceration rate among the states.
So far, anyway, most local lockups appear to have avoided the sort of mass outbreak that has been seen in some U.S. jails, such as two prisons in Ohio that have nearly 4,000 confirmed cases between them. But because testing has been limited, the virus’s spread behind bars may not be well understood.
The stakes of the crisis grew clearer this week as the DOC reported six deaths — three inmates and three prison employees, including both the warden and the medical director of Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Avoyelles Parish. Advocates had long warned that prison employees are just as vulnerable as inmates once the virus starts spreading.
Warden Sandy McCain was among the first DOC employees to test positive for coronavirus and died after battling the disease for almost a month. He was well-liked and respected among both inmates and DOC colleagues.
The most recent prisoner death was that of a woman whose name corrections officials have refused to disclose, but whom advocates have identified as Dorothy Pierre. Pierre, 60, had served more than 20 years for armed robbery and manslaughter. She had applied for clemency and been scheduled to appear before the state pardon board in August.
“We are heartbroken about what happened to Dorothy,” said Rhonda K. Oliver, who was locked up with Pierre before being released and founding a nonprofit. “I’m getting so many messages from the ladies inside. They are terrified. They don’t want to die in there.”
DOC data released Friday shows 97 female inmates out of the roughly 500 in state prisons have now tested positive, though 39 are asymptomatic. That appears to be the first example of the department testing prisoners who aren’t displaying symptoms; officials provided no explanation of the decision.
Corrections leaders across the state say they’ve taken myriad steps, including educating inmates about handwashing, sanitizing common spaces and telling prisoners to keep their distance from each other. DOC officials said they’ve also provided inmates with two cloth masks each that are washed and sanitized every day. Extra soap and hand sanitizer is available at no cost.
But Jackson’s ruling on Rayburn this week suggested that such efforts have sometimes been lacking. Advocates at the non-profit group VOTE, who said inmates are still struggling to get masks, delivered 8,000 to the state prison system on Friday.
Jackson said that Marlowe’s “credible” testimony “paints a very different picture” from what the corrections officials have described about conditions inside Rayburn.
However, Jackson declined to free the diabetic inmate, instead ordering DOC to submit a plan within five days detailing how it will implement proper hygiene practices and social distancing. The state is appealing his decision to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Even if best practices are implemented, epidemiologists caution such mitigation efforts will only go so far within the close confines of prisons such as Rayburn. Like nursing home patients, inmates often have to share the same dining surfaces and bathrooms, and they depend on staffers who sleep nights in the outside world.
Bruce Reilly, deputy director of VOTE, said even when inmates can routinely wear masks, packed dorms will still pose a transmission threat. “People are not going to wear these things when they sleep. All it takes is one snoring volcano,” he said.
Just as in nursing homes, coronavirus outbreaks seem to have been especially severe inside jails and prisons. The New Orleans jail, which is only partway through testing all its inmates, has already received results showing that 114 inmates, and more than one tenth of its current population, were positive for the virus.
At state prisons, 166 inmates and 85 staffers had tested positive through Friday. Another 22 inmates and 22 staffers had tested positive at a federal prison complex in Oakdale, Allen Parish, where seven inmates have died.
Meanwhile, 72 detainees in the archipelago of federal immigration lockups that dot Louisiana’s rural areas have tested positive.
Even children in juvenile detention centers and their guards have been affected: 28 kids and 31 staff members at “secure care facilities” in Louisiana have tested positive.
Judges, public defenders and district attorneys have taken steps in some jurisdictions to limit their jail populations, often by releasing pretrial detainees who can’t afford bond. In New Orleans, that push has cut the jail population down by a quarter.
Of the remaining inmates, 58% are being held on suspicion of violent felonies, according to an analysis this week by the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has said he’s open to releasing some nonviolent pretrial inmates, but dead-set against releasing violent offenders.
State releases have also had clear limits. DOC officials have announced a plan to grant temporary furloughs to a limited number of inmates: nonviolent offenders within six months of their release date, prioritizing those with medical problems.
But only about 100 inmates housed in state prisons will be eligible. Another estimated 1,100 state prisoners in local jails — usually those convicted of more minor crimes and serving shorter sentences — will be considered for release. If all 1,200 eligible prisoners were freed, it would reduce Louisiana’s state inmate population of about 32,000 by less than 4%.
Prisoner rights advocates have criticized DOC’s limited approach and are seeking more widespread releases, focusing on inmates like Marlowe who have dangerous pre-existing conditions.
“Mr. Marlowe does not have a death sentence,” said his attorney, Emily Posner. “The plan they currently have in place puts him in imminent danger, and the federal court agreed.”
Rayburn had 1,300 prisoners at the end of 2019. Its warden said in a recent court filing that 760 have pre-existing conditions, including 590 with hypertension, the number one underlying condition among coronavirus fatalities in Louisiana.
Advocates are especially concerned about inmates at Angola, the sprawling maximum-security prison in West Feliciana Parish that houses Louisiana’s longest-serving prisoners, many of them aging lifers in poor health.
Two of the three reported inmate deaths so far have involved Angola prisoners, both men in their 60s with underlying health conditions, according to the DOC.
Advocates argue Angola’s population is being put at heightened risk because of DOC’s plan to bring infected inmates from local jails to Angola’s Camp J dorm, a solitary confinement wing closed in 2018 amid safety concerns.
There are now 133 inmates from local jails being quarantined at Camp J, according to the DOC.
DOC officials have stressed that the accommodations are isolated, and said all inmates experiencing severe coronavirus symptoms would be sent to a hospital.
“What better place is there to have a dormitory that’s about four miles from everyone else, and you can just keep that coronavirus threat there?” asked Burl Cain, the prison’s longtime former warden.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat in a deep-red state, could face political pushback if he decided to release prisoners with violent criminal histories. State Attorney General Jeff Landry has already rejected the idea that any prisoners at all should go free while communities struggle to respond to coronavirus.
Cain said he thought the state was making the right call in not releasing more inmates to home confinement, saying that high unemployment rates would present a challenge for newly freed prisoners.
“You’re almost forcing people to break the law to make it,” Cain said. “You have to be really careful who you let out. It’s such a risk. You also have to take into account the victims.”
In lieu of large-scale releases, advocates are also calling for mass testing of all inmates, whether or not they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. DOC officials said they’re currently testing only inmates who “exhibit fever or flu-like symptoms,” but acknowledged that “there is a need to increase capacity across the state, and the state is working on that.”
“My opinion is the best thing to do is test. You can’t do anything without first having knowledge of the problem,” said Oliver, the former prisoner. “Then you can start saving lives.”
Some public health experts agree, calling for mass testing of jail and prison inmates nationwide.
“The best way to prevent these outbreaks from happening is universal testing of individuals coming into the facilities,” said Jason Andrews, a Stanford professor specializing in infectious diseases. “Once an outbreak has occurred, widespread testing of all individuals regardless of symptoms is essential.”
But the New Orleans jail appears to be an outlier among most correctional facilities in its decision to test all inmates. Across the Mississippi River at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, 21 of the 31 inmates with test results were positive as of Tuesday. The jail holds about 900 prisoners.
The lock-up’s health contractor said it had no plans to test all of its inmates despite its sky-high, 68% “test positivity rate.” Baton Rouge’s jail has seen a similar high rate of positive test results — about 63%, according to numbers released earlier this week.
“That is a dramatically high number, and I think it would be critical to test all inmates and staff of that jail,” Andrews said. “If only symptomatic individuals have been tested, then you’re likely seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Other agreed widespread testing would be beneficial, but said it’s just not feasible given the testing shortages that have defined the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
Even if the supplies became available to test everyone in a correctional facility, you would almost have to repeat the exercise every day to get a clear picture of how the virus is spreading, said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. That would require a massive number of tests and would subject people to the unpleasant experience of being tested routinely, which involves having a swab shoved up their nose.
“Our country does not have that capacity in general, and certainly not in our prison system,” said Dr. David Seal, a professor at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “This is not an indictment of the criminal justice system — it’s an indictment of our country that has failed miserably in deploying this response mechanism.”