Last week, the Louisiana Department of Health issued — and then quickly rescinded — a memo with a list of recommendations for preventing severe outbreaks of COVID-19 within jails and prisons that threaten to “overwhelm the state’s medical facilities.” If prison wardens are unable to achieve physical distancing by keeping prisoners at least six feet apart from each other, the memo warns, then officials should work with courts and prosecutors to reduce the number of people locked up across the state.
Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana’s chief health officer, issued the recommendations on April 8. Later that day, Guidry’s boss, interim Louisiana Health Secretary Stephen Russo, issued another memo rescinding the recommendations in full and without explanation. Guidry is the health department’s medical director and runs Louisiana’s public health office. Russo is a political appointee who was the health department’s chief attorney, before Gov. John Bel Edwards tapped him to replace former Health Secretary Rebekah Gee, who abruptly resigned in January amid controversy over her role in a high-profile abortion rights case.
It remains unclear exactly why Russo pulled back the recommendations, which include commonsense measures such as washing hands with soap and water and isolating sick people. Guidry and Russo have not responded to emails from Truthout. However, activists say the about-face suggests that tensions between public health officials, politicians, prosecutors and prison wardens are rising as COVID-19 continues to spread through the state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate. On Tuesday, more than two weeks after the first state prisoner tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Louisiana officials finally announced that a small number of people nearing the end of their prison sentences may be eligible for early release. Activists fear the “medical furlough” program may be to too little, too late.
At least 60 prisoners and 52 guards have tested positive for the novel coronavirus at state prisons across Louisiana, up from 57 and 45 on Monday. On Friday, officials confirmed that a guard working at the Louisiana State Penitentiary — which is also known as the Angola prison farm — died of complications related to COVID-19. Civil rights groups and advocates for the incarcerated spent the past week challenging a state plan to isolate prisoners with mild COVID-19 symptoms at Camp J, a notoriously dungeon-like section of Angola that used to hold people in solitary confinement before shutting down in 2018. In February, a federal judge ruled that parts of Angola’s medical system are unconstitutional in response to a 2015 lawsuit accusing the prison of providing “grossly deficient” medical care. Activists say that since prisoners are terrified of being quarantined in Angola, many of those who are sick may not be reporting COVID-19 symptoms to medical staff.
“What we are hearing from the inside is people do not want to report to a death camp,” said Bruce Reilly, a formally incarcerated activist in New Orleans, in an interview. “People don’t want to self-report their symptoms if they think they are going to be sent to a place that has no medical facilities and you are just going to go there to die, with a history like Camp J.”
At least six prisoners have died from COVID-19 complications at the Oakdale federal prison north of Lafayette, Louisiana, drawing national scrutiny. On Monday, civil rights groups filed an emergency motion in federal court seeking a temporary restraining order to force the release of vulnerable people held at Oakdale, where prisoners say they fear for their lives.
In Louisiana and across the country, activists and medical experts are demanding that jails and prisons reduce their populations to allow for physical distancing and prevent disastrous outbreaks. Some prosecutors are pushing back, ignoring the advice of public health experts and arguing that the public will be safer if people remain locked up. Officials have so far been reluctant to release prisoners in Louisiana, a COVID-19 epicenter where the total number of confirmed cases surpassed 21,500 on Tuesday. Brie Williams, a professor of medicine at the University of San Francisco who studies the health of incarcerated older adults, said the “inability to create social distancing” in jails and prisons poses a serious COVID-19 risk for everyone inside of them.
“It is also a potentially devastating occupational health crisis for the correctional officers and health care staff who work in these facilities and return home each and every day, after their shift, to their families, neighbors and communities,” Williams told Truthout in an email. “COVID-19 is not going to respect the borders of prison walls — it will transfer from prisons to communities and back again…. Protecting the health of people in prison is an essential way to protect the health of our communities.”
Nationwide, the pandemic has forced officials at all levels of government to release incarcerated people in order to free up room for attempts at social distancing, to try to prevent outbreaks behind bars. However, incarcerated people across the country still report being caged together in close quarters and denied access to basic hygiene supplies like hand sanitizer. Attorney General William Barr has ordered the federal prison system to expand its early release — and its home confinement program (raising challenges from advocates about the widespread use of electronic monitoring). Barr’s order also asked the system to prioritize the release of medically vulnerable prisoners at Oakdale and another hard-hit federal prison in Ohio where four people have died. Under pressure from activists and public defenders, judges in New Orleans recently ordered the release of people awaiting trial for low-level offenses in the city’s jail, where dozens of staffers and at least 16 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections announced that a panel of prison, parole and law enforcement officials will privately review on a “rolling, case-by-case basis” whether certain prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes are eligible for temporary medical furlough. To qualify, they must be within six months of completing their sentence and agree to supervision and house arrest until their sentence ends. About 1,200 people may be eligible for early release, a sliver of roughly 34,000 people locked up in Louisiana state prisons. Reilly said many of these prisoners are likely already eligible for administrative parole, so creating a special medical furlough panel seems like a big waste of time. States like Ohio and Pennsylvania have already released hundreds of people from state prisons.
“This plan maybe releases one person per cell block, so I’m not sure how much extra social distancing it accomplishes,” Reilly said.
Reilly is the deputy director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a group of formerly incarcerated activists that has successfully campaigned for criminal legal reforms in Louisiana. While Edwards championed modest criminal legal reforms aimed at reducing Louisiana’s sky-high incarceration rate, his administration has not been transparent about its efforts to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails. State officials tell advocates that the prison system is capable of caring for COVID-19 patients and preventing the spread of the disease, but have offered few details on what the care looks like. Meanwhile, prisoners and their families are panicking and COVID-19 continues to spread.
“Those of us who know medical people in our lives, we are hearing certain things, and we are not seeing it happen,” Reilly said. “And if there are all these medical interventions, please say it for everybody’s sake.”
Russo, the interim health secretary who rescinded his own medical director’s COVID-19 memo to jails and prisons, told Reilly in an email that the health department was reviewing the recommendations with the corrections department. Which recommendations are under review remains unclear; Russo and a health department spokeswoman did not respond to emails from Truthout. However, Reilly said the recommendation that people be released if prisons are unable to ensure at least six feet of physical distance between them is clearly the most controversial.
On April 1, as COVID-19 was sweeping across Louisiana and calls to release people from jails and prisons reached a fever pitch, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry sent a public letter to Edwards arguing that releasing prisoners could spark a “new crime wave.” Reilly said Landry’s letter simply ignores the “cohort” of people most likely to be released from prison: elderly men with health problems who have already served most of their sentences.
Landry is a hardline Republican and a former sheriff’s deputy who once threatened to paint Edwards as soft-on-crime in a bid for governor and attack statewide reforms that caused modest reductions in the state’s incarceration rate. Edwards, meanwhile, is a conservative Democrat who managed to fend off a Republican backed by President Trump in a deeply red state to win a second term by a slim margin last year.
Republican fearmongering is nothing new in Louisiana, a state where white supremacists have been active since the Civil War and Black people make up a massively disproportionate chunk of the prison population. In 2015, when Edwards was locked in a tight race for governor with arch-conservative former Sen. David Vitter, Vitter’s campaign launched a TV ad warning voters that Democrats support releasing “dangerous thugs” from jails and prisons. Alongside images of prisoners and drug users, the ad claimed that President Obama and Edwards had called for releasing thousands of “drug dealers” into “our neighborhoods.” In reality, the modest reforms supported by Edwards and Obama to address mass incarceration had bipartisan support.
Edwards has received national praise for his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as his ability to negotiate with a volatile President Trump. Whether the political pressure he faces from the likes of Landry has anything to do with the health department’s decision to rescind the COVID-19 memo is unknown. However, it’s clear that officials are still debating how to contain COVID-19 within the state’s vast carceral landscape weeks after Edwards issued a stay-at-home order and other emergency measures for the rest of the state. A spokesman for the Department from Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.
As it stands today, activists like Reilly have a lot more questions than answers. What is the timeline for deciding who is eligible for a medical furlough and when will they be released? Is anyone currently being released from Louisiana’s prisons, considering the state parole board suspended hearings last month? Are reentry programs operational? After all, Louisiana has faced criticism for keeping people locked up long past their release dates. Will the health department issue a revised set of recommendations? Reilly said Louisiana has plenty of options but has already wasted crucial time. For example, Edwards reportedly has a list of 200 people who are eligible for clemency and can start issuing pardons now. Parole officers should grant 180 days of “good time” to everyone within six months of their release date, rather than granting medical furlough on a case-by-case basis. This would allow people who have served the majority of their sentences to go home, as per the widespread advice of public health experts.
“We feel confident that the Louisiana Department of Health has the best interest of everybody in Louisiana in mind, and we feel confident that the state health officer has a lot of expertise to share with the state,” Reilly said. “We fully expect that the state health officer and Department of Health will share with us what they are doing, so we can help them do it better.”