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

Two people being held at the New Orleans jail tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a memo released by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) on Monday. The announcement comes after weeks of warnings from the Orleans Public Defenders office, advocacy groups, and health experts, about the dire consequences of the virus spreading in the jail, along with a push to reduce the number of inmates being held there.

Last week, in a letter to the acting Chief Judge of the Criminal District Court, Sheriff Marlin Gusman himself called for a further reduction of the jail population in order to guard against the virus through the release of people being held non-violent charges who do not have a prior criminal record. 

Late last week, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges declined to issue an order releasing all non-violent offenders or those whose age or health made them particularly at risk from the disease.

The population at the jail is historically low, following some inmate releases and a much lower number of arrests by the New Orleans Police Department in recent days. According to the memo, the current local inmate population is 828. An additional 20 inmates, who require acute mental health care for which the jail is not equipped, are being held at a state facility in St. Gabriel. Last year’s lowest count was more than 1,000. The jail often held 6,000 or more people pre-Katrina. 

One of the two inmates who tested positive is now in the hospital, according to the memo. The other is being held in the Temporary Detention Center, which has been used to house inmates on work release, kitchen workers, and is in the process of being renovated to house inmates with acute mental illness.

Last week, WDSU reported that the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) plans to house inmates from local facilities that contract coronavirus if those jurisdictions are not equipped to treat them. The inmates would be sent to Allen Correctional or Louisiana State Penitentiary, according to the DOC.

It is unclear whether or not there are plans to transfer inmates from New Orleans to either of those facilities. Spokespeople for both the Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Corrections couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. The vast majority of people being held in the New Orleans jail are pre-trial detainees, and have not been convicted of a crime.

Five other inmates are currently awaiting their test results, according to the memo. Two have tested negative. It is unclear how many others are being quarantined or are showing symptoms.

Eleven staff members of OPSO have tested positive, and six employees of the jail’s healthcare provider, Wellpath, have also tested positive. 

According to OPSO, staff have put in place protocol to protect the facilities against a coronavirus outbreak, which includes a screening process for new arrestees, the suspension of all non-essential visits, and accommodations to quarantine “any affected individuals.” 

In addition, OPSO has produced a series of videos which are being shown on televisions throughout the jail facilities “as an educational tool for inmates and staff.” 

“The videos focus on the severity of the outbreak,” said a statement from OPSO, “and address how to identify signs and symptoms, ways to prevent the spread and employee protocol surrounding COVID-19.”

A letter signed by over a dozen professors from both the Tulane University School of Medicine and the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, which urges a reduction in the New Orleans jail population, describes the specific dangers of a jail setting during an epidemic:

“Jails, including the Orleans Justice Center (the New Orleans jail) are places in which people are necessarily kept in close proximity to one another in small cells and open dormitories, with no possibility to practice social distancing or good hand hygiene. Sanitizing chemicals known to be effective against coronavirus, such as bleach solution, can be in short supply. Shower facilities in jails are communal and dining mainly happens in shared spaces as well. Conditions such as these are expected to facilitate rapid transmission of coronavirus. As such, once an epidemic of coronavirus is underway inside a jail, any person placed in such a facility is expected to be at high risk of acquiring the virus and transmitting it to others in the facility.”

Nicholas 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...