The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Stein/The Lens)

In the midst of a rising number of coronavirus cases in Louisiana, the Orleans Parish Public Defenders are asking the Criminal District Court to immediately release from jail people being held on non-violent offenses and ensure inmates and detainees are safe. 

“Today, as the number of COVID-19 cases rise in New Orleans, we are asking our criminal legal system leaders to take immediate action to limit the spread of the virus and the potential catastrophic effects on our community and clients in jail and out,” they said in a statement. 

They are also requesting that “the Probation and Parole Department immediately lift probation and parole holds for people with non-violent charges; The New Orleans Police Department begin issuing summonses, in lieu of arrest, for all nonviolent offenses; and Criminal District Court, Juvenile and Municipal Court reset all out-of-custody cases at least 30 days to limit exposure and risks to our vulnerable in custody clients and our staff.” 

The statement expressed concern over the safety of prisoners, as well as staff members. 

“Our priority is the health and safety of our clients, many of whom are older or have compromised immune systems. We are also concerned for the safety of our staff, who work in the courts, in the jails and in the community every day.” 

At a New Orleans City Council committee meeting Wednesday, member Jason Williams said the jail’s response would be representative of the health of the city. 

“In New Orleans, we don’t have a prison, we have a jail. Which means most people are there pretrial and the lion’s share of people are coming back out into the community,” he said. “So how we deal with infectious diseases in close quarters there will dictate how healthy we are in the community.”

In a letter to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office sent Wednesday, the public defenders requested that the sheriff’s office publicly release plans on how they are “preventing a coronavirus outbreak and responding to any detained people who are diagnosed with the coronavirus.”  

That plan, they said, should include screening procedures for all new prisoners, quarantine plans that would transfer sick prisoners out of the jail and into a hospital, precautionary measures such as increased cleaning and sanitizing of the facility, and a requirement that quarantined prisoners be able to maintain contact with their lawyers and families. 

At a meeting Wednesday, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his staff said they had a screening process but presented limited details on what it entails. 

Philip Stelly with the Sheriff’s office told the Lens everyone who enters the jail is initially screened by medical staff, and anyone who exhibits a fever over 100.4 degrees and exhibits respiratory illness is asked a series of targeted questions about their interactions within the previous 14 days. 

If a person is determined to be a risk, they are isolated and the staff is given protective equipment. He said there are currently four cells designated to quarantine any prisoners who have symptoms of coronavirus. The cells would be divided by gender and whether or not the case has been confirmed. 

He said all potential cases would be reported to public health officials. 

Public defenders still have concerns.

“Anecdotally what we’re hearing is that our clients are not getting access to items that would be helpful in reducing or mitigating spread of coronavirus,” said Derwyn Bunton, New Orleans’ Chief Public Defender.  “So, hand-sanitizer, antibacterial soap. Social distancing is not something that is happening.”

He said that some sanitary items are available to inmates only for purchase. 

“Unless you have money and people who can put money on your account, you’re not able to purchase those items either,” he said. “Soap, in particular, you would need someone to give you money in order to get anti-bacterial soap.” 

Stelly that soap was “readily available” for prisoners, and they did not need to purchase it, unless they wanted a specific brand. 

He also said that on March 4, a protocol was issued for deputies to direct inmates to engage in “frequent hand washing.” 

Hand-sanitizer, however, is not available, according to Stelly. And Bunton said what he is hearing from clients is concerning. 

“They say they see deputies with masks and gloves,” Bunton said, “but not very many precautions when it comes to the lives they are charged with caring for — those being our clients.” 

“Given the public health emergency that is developing, it is imperative we act swiftly,” OPD said in their statement. “These measures will help reduce the jail population, limit unnecessary exposure, and hopefully prevent a rapid outbreak.” 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...