Louisiana’s Data On Coronavirus Infections Among Prisoners Is Troubled And Lacks Transparency

The state is sending virus-positive people to Angola prison—but those numbers aren’t reported on the Department of Corrections website.

Louisiana’s Data On Coronavirus Infections Among Prisoners Is Troubled And Lacks Transparency

The state is sending virus-positive people to Angola prison—but those numbers aren’t reported on the Department of Corrections website.

Over 100 incarcerated people who tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Louisiana’s local jails have been transferred to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in America, also known as Angola. Despite warnings from public health experts and an ongoing lawsuit by civil rights attorneys, the state is imprisoning  infected people at Angola’s Camp J, shuttered in 2018 after suicides and acts of violence occurred there for decades. 

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections (DOC) is also not being transparent about its statistics regarding coronavirus at Camp J: The number of people housed there does not appear on its COVID-19 data portal. As of April 30, the DOC reported that 55 people at Angola have tested positive for the virus. Two have died. The true number of coronavirus-positive people at Angola—at least 115—is not in the DOC data but is instead buried in a “Situational Awareness Report” published by the Louisiana Business Emergency Operations Center, a partnership between Louisiana Economic Development, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, and other agencies. 

The DOC’s incomplete accounting of coronavirus at Angola is just one of numerous ways in which the department has so far failed to report the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak among the state’s imprisoned people. As is the case in virtually every state, the number of coronavirus infections in Louisiana prisons and jails is likely vastly undercounted: After the New Orleans jail implemented widespread testing in mid-April, the number of asymptomatic cases more than doubled over a single weekend.

Civil rights attorneys told The Appeal that, because of a lack of communication from the DOC, they have had to rely on a trickle of local news reports and information from local sheriff’s departments to ascertain the number of infected people who have been sent to Angola. The attorneys said that, amid one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks per capita in the U.S., Louisiana residents have struggled to even find out if their family members have been moved from a parish jail to Camp J. In court filings, attorneys have also warned that because almost half of the people held at Angola are over 50 years old, bringing virus-positive people into the prison puts its aging population at risk.

“Their lack of transparency during this public health crisis has endangered those held in DOC custody, their employees, and surrounding communities,” said Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that is suing the DOC to restrain the department from transferring COVID-19 carriers to Angola. “We cannot protect our clients, loved ones, or ourselves from this deadly virus unless widespread testing of prison populations is conducted and those results are made public. In a state where everyone is trying their best to follow social distancing and hygiene recommendations to stay safe, the Department of Corrections is creating substandard medical facility camps, ignoring available resources, and hiding the truth.”

The DOC did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Appeal.

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But the DOC’s reporting problems run deeper than its failure to report accurate figures at Camp J. In fact, nearly half the state’s prison population seems to be missing from the state’s daily coronavirus tallies.

That’s due to a quirk in Louisiana’s state prison system. Of the roughly 31,000 people in DOC custody, more than half—about 16,500— are housed in local jails. These jails are paid to imprison people on the state’s behalf (local facilities also hold another 15,000 people pretrial.) Louisiana sends many of its incarcerated people to what are known as “lock and feeds,” understaffed parish jails not built to house people serving long sentences. These facilities often lack proper medical wards, mental health services, and educational programs. Angola, by contrast, has re-entry programs that include more than a dozen industry-based certifications in areas such as welding and brick masonry.

But when it comes to coronavirus infections, critics say the DOC is only counting people in its eight state-run facilities. As of April 30, the DOC reported that 273 people tested positive for COVID-19, but these cases only came from state-run facilities housing 15,000 of Louisiana’s 31,000 incarcerated people. The Louisiana Sheriff’s Association said that, as of April 22, 187 additional people had contracted the coronavirus in parish jails, but it’s unclear how many of those people were technically being held on state charges. Of those 187, 85 are “assigned to or being moved to Camp J for isolation,” the DOC reported this week.

“The numbers of tests conducted and positive results from jails across Louisiana show high rates of COVID-19 infection in carceral institutions that are not being reported as part of the Department of Corrections data,” Montagnes said. “In Louisiana, the DOC leases thousands of people serving prison sentences to sheriffs, who house them in local jails. When it’s inconvenient to count them, they leave them out, like right now the only COVID-positive people that are being publically reported are those held in the eight state facilities.”

The DOC also has begun reporting the number of incarcerated people placed in transitional, or “step down,” units as they recover from the virus. As of April 30, 73 people had been placed in the units systemwide. Of the 73, 20 people were in step-down at Angola as of April 30. 

The DOC has released little public information about how its COVID-19 units operate, and did not respond to multiple inquiries from The Appeal about them.  (Other states have created similar units; in Michigan, the Department of Corrections created a unit where  “recovering” prisoners stay until they test negative for the virus and are integrated back into general prison populations.) But in an April 24 court filing, the DOC said that COVID-19-positive people at Camp J are held in quarantine for 14 days: seven days under close monitoring by medical professionals, and another seven days in “step-down” facilities. People who test negative for the virus after 14 days are then returned to where they were previously housed. 

In the meantime, the DOC has been unable to contain the coronavirus within its eight facilities. Over the weekend of April 17, the DOC announced that both the warden and medical director at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Avoyelles Parish died after contracting COVID-19. On April 30, the DOC reported 176 cases at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. 

At the end of March, the Promise of Justice Initiative tried to stop the DOC’s Camp J plan in a motion filed as part of an unresolved federal lawsuit against the department over “grossly deficient policies and practices, including unnecessary pain and suffering, exacerbation of existing conditions, permanent disability, disfigurement, and even death” at Angola because of inadequate medical care. 

On April 2, a federal judge denied the motion and on April 14, the Promise of Justice Initiative, Southern Poverty Law Center, and other groups sued Governor John Bel Edwards in an effort to stop Louisiana from sending people—including many held pretrial—to Camp J. As The Appeal previously reported, Kendrick Wilson tested positive for the coronavirus while he was housed at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and was then transferred in shackles to Angola. Wilson is a plaintiff in the April 14 lawsuit. 

In addition to Wilson, East Baton Rouge has sent 17 other people—the largest single number from any local jail—to Camp J since the pandemic began. The Franklin, Caldwell, St. Tammany, Bienville, Ouchita, St. John, Union, and Iberville Parish sheriff’s offices have sent others. 

Louisiana DOC Secretary James Leblanc filed a memorandum arguing in favor of keeping Camp J “separate” from the rest of Angola and that any potential harm from the plan is “speculation” and “conjecture.” Leblanc argued it’s “medically necessary” to house infected people confined at Camp J.

“Even assuming that there is a substantial risk of serious harm (which is denied), the Plaintiffs cannot show that the Defendants are subjectively deliberately indifferent to the risk from operation of Camp J,” he wrote. “In response to the potential risk of transfer of COVID-19 outside of Camp J, the Defendants devised a plan which keeps Camp J as a separate facility to mitigate against spread of COVID-19 through LSP [Louisiana State Penitentiary].”

But as part of the April 14 lawsuit, Dr. Michael Puisis, the former medical director of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, filed a declaration stating that even before the outbreak began, Angola’s medical staff was understaffed and unable to handle the people who were already incarcerated there. 

“Persons suspicious for or known to be infected with COVID-19 should NOT be transferred to LSP,” Puisis wrote. “As of April 13, 2020, West Feliciana Parish [where Angola is located] only had 46 cases and 0 deaths. LSP had 24 cases between staff and inmates. To send patients infected with COVID-19 to a parish and correctional facility with few known cases risks spreading the disease further into Louisiana and has ramifications for the community at large.” 

Dr. Josiah Rich, co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights in Providence, Rhode Island, told The Appeal that the Louisiana DOC’s approach to COVID-19 will only work if the state is rigorously testing every single incarcerated person—and not just cherry-picking symptomatic people and moving them to Angola. He cited the example of cruise ships that recently tested symptomatic people, moved them to mainland hospitals, but still had infections increase onboard. Rich said that the DOC also needs to ensure that medical workers don’t travel between Camp J and Angola’s main prison population.

“Just plucking out the sick people is not gonna work,” Rich said. “It wasn’t gonna work for the cruise ships, and it’s not going to work here.”

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