A protester participating in a motorcade outside of the city's jail on Monday, April 6. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

A motorcade protest consisting of dozens of cars demanding decarceration of state and local detention facilities amid the spread of coronavirus circled the Orleans Justice Center on Monday. Earlier in the day the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office announced it was holding 14 inmates who have tested positive for the virus. Another inmate who tested positive is being treated at a local hospital. 

The 15 total inmates who have tested positive as of Monday represents an increase of 13 since late last week. In addition, 29 Sheriff’s Office employees and 10 employees of its contracted healthcare provider, Wellpath, have tested positive. 

The motorcade, organized by the New Orleans Workers Group, also circled the Juvenile Justice Center, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement New Orleans Field Office, and City Hall.

“Without action, local, state, and immigrant prisons may become a center of death for thousands and devastate families and communities,” a press release from the Workers Group announcing the protest read. “Many of those incarcerated are ill, old, or children. We cannot let this happen.” 

The protest came amid a several week push by a wide array of criminal justice actors — including the Orleans Public Defenders, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Louisiana Supreme Court — to find ways to reduce the local jail population. According to the Sheriff’s Office, there are 800 inmates in local custody, the lowest number in recent memory. An additional 20 Orleans Parish inmates are being held at a state facility in St. Gabriel. 

Last Friday, the Sheriff’s Office said it had confirmed just two inmates had coronavirus, and only four inmates were awaiting test results. It is unclear how an increase in 13 cases came to occur over the weekend. 

The update from the Sheriff’s Office said the spread appeared to be occurring in one of four  sections of the prison, where all of the inmates who tested positive had been held. 

“The common denominator among inmates who have tested positive is that they were all housed in one of OJC’s four inmate housing units,” the Sheriff’s Office’s update read. “We have been medically segregating inmates as deemed necessary to contain the virus on that unit and are attempting to acquire enough collection kits to systematically test all inmates and staff in an effort to contain the virus and eliminate it from within our facilities.” 

Darnley Hodge, the jail’s compliance director, told The Lens in a statement that the jail had around 60 test kits, which was enough for them to test inmates who were “presumed positive.” 

The jails healthcare provider, Wellpath, has instituted screening protocols for “all new arrestees, current inmates and anyone who enters our facilities,” according to the update from the Sheriff’s Office. Those protocols include  “temperature screenings with the latest technology and several targeted questions surrounding their activities and interactions over the past 14 days.” 

Hodge also said that the Sheriff’s Office was in talks with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to possibly house inmates who have tested positive in state prisons. The DOC has said that it would provide space at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and Allen Correctional Center to house local pre-trial detainees who have tested positive for coronavirus from jurisdictions that are not equipped to treat coronavirus in their facilities. 

“We have discussed and considered moving inmates who tested positive to DOC,” Hodge said. “That option is still open.”

That move has been opposed by some groups, who argue that transferring positive inmates to DOC facilities will put the prisoners already housed there at risk. According to the DOC website, which appears to have been updated Sunday morning,  22 prisoners in its custody have tested positive for coronavirus already, including 5 at Louisiana State Penitentiary. 

In addition to advocating for the release of people already behind bars, there is also a push for  the New Orleans Police Department to make formal efforts to reduce the number of arrests being made.

On Monday, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, along with the Independent Police Monitor and several other groups, sent a letter to NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson and Mayor LaToya Cantrell calling on them to “institute a NOPD policy directing officers to issue summons to all persons charged with non- violent, non-domestic, non-sex offenses instead of placing them under custodial arrest.”

According to the letter, a significant number of those low-level arrests have continued taking place in recent weeks.

“Between March 18th and April 2nd, of the total number of people who were arrested, booked into jail, and faced a bail hearing in Orleans Magistrate Court, 42% were arrested for non-violent offenses; 9% were arrested with drug charges only,” the letter claims.

In a response letter addressed to “Concerned Citizens” on Monday, Ferguson said that the department will continue to issue summonses as much as possible, but declined to announce any changes in department protocol or policy. 

“I want you to know that we share your concern for the residents and visitors of this city, as well as our officers and public safety partners,” Ferguson wrote. “We don’t intend to put anyone in harm’s way unnecessarily. However, we will do what is necessary to maintain public safety, whether that is issuing a summons, or making a physical arrest. We will continue to instruct our officers toward non-custodial arrest as much as possible, but that decision has to be made based on the situation that they are faced with, not by a blanket ban on arrests for non-violent offenders.”

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...