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

A man arrested Thursday night has the coronavirus and is being held in the New Orleans jail, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. He is being isolated in the Temporary Detention Center, a wing of the jail that is generally used to house inmates who work in the kitchen and those on work-release. 

In its daily update, the Sheriff’s Office said that it was “discovered during screening that this inmate was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.” He was then sent to a local hospital, and returned to jail “with paperwork confirming that he had tested positive for the virus.” 

Concerns about an outbreak in local jails — which some fear could quickly spiral out of control — have reached the state Supreme Court. On Friday, the court sent a letter to district judges across Louisiana warning that such an outbreak could be “catastrophic.” 

The update from the Sheriff’s Office did not specify where or when the man was tested for the virus, nor what he was arrested for. OPSO, along with a spokesperson for the New Orleans Police Department, did not immediately return calls from The Lens. 

The man is at least the third inmate to have the virus while in OPSO custody, and one of two currently in custody. The other is being treated at a local hospital. Another inmate who had tested positive was released from OPSO’s custody Wednesday evening.

OPSO had also previously reported that there was a “former inmate” who tested positive for the virus, but it is unclear whether or not that person was carrying the virus while being housed in the jail.

The Sheriff’s Office also reported that 22 of its staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with seven employees of the jail’s healthcare provider, Wellpath. Thirteen Sheriff’s Office employees and eight Wellpath employees are still waiting for test results. 

Public health experts have warned that coronavirus can spread quickly in jails, due to lack of space for social distancing and limited hygienic resources.  

Meanwhile, the Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Bernette Johnson, issued a letter on Friday to all the district judges in the state advising them to take measures to lower the jail populations in each of their respective jurisdictions. 

“An outbreak of COVID-19 in our jails would be potentially catastrophic for jail staff, the families of jail staff, and inmates,” the letter reads. “Therefore at this time, it is important to safely minimize the number of people detained in jails where possible.”

In the letter, Johnson advised the judges to “conduct a comprehensive and heightened risk-based assessment of all detainees (except those who have been convicted of felony offenses and remanded to the Department of Corrections),” suggesting that they reduce bail amounts or allow a release on their own recognizance for defendants who are being held on low-level and non-violent charges.

Last week, the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) filed an emergency petition to the New Orleans Criminal District Court Judges to get vulnerable and non-violent inmates released. OPD said they had identified over 200 defendants being held in jail on non-violent charges. 

The judges denied the petition from OPD on procedural grounds, and also issued a statement saying that  there were no known individuals being held in jail solely on low-level, non-violent offenses.

“Since the judges’ ruling we have been able to work on a case-by-case basis,” said Colin Reingold, Litigation Director for the Orleans Public Defenders. “We provided the judges with our list of names that we had referenced in our letter, and we are working together to see how many of the cases we can agree to address quickly through standard processes.”

Karen Herman, Chief Judge of the New Orleans Criminal District Court, was not immediately available for comment. 

In her letter, Johnson also advised the judges to “suggest to law enforcement that, whenever practicable, they issue summons and citations on misdemeanor crimes and non-violent offenses in lieu of arrest, with a notice to appear on a future date.”

The New Orleans Police Department has said that it will not change its protocol by halting low-level arrests, but that it will increase the use of summonses. Arrests numbers have gone down in recent weeks, but some people are still being booked on low-level and non-violent charges, and advocacy groups have urged the police department to do more to reduce the exposure of the jail to coronavirus.

“New Orleans is becoming an outlier in its failure to adjust NOPD arrest protocols in response to the coronavirus,” said Sade Dumas of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition in a statement. “Changing this protocol to minimize the number of people entering the jail would limit the spread of the virus for law enforcement officers, incarcerated persons, and the community at large. The Louisiana Supreme Court has recognized the need to lower the jail population and is taking action. To minimize harm, the Mayor and NOPD should heed their advice and immediately stop the pipeline of community members to our jail.”

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...