The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

Attorneys representing prisoners and pretrial detainees across the state filed a class action lawsuit on Tuesday against Gov. John Bel Edwards over a state program moving inmates from other facilities who have tested positive for the coronavirus to Camp J of Louisiana State Penitentiary. 

Meanwhile, at a Tuesday press conference, Edwards and Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc announced that the state will soon be implementing a plan, in the works for more than a week, to temporarily send some state prisoners and sentenced inmates being held at local jails into home confinement as a way to create more room and slow the spread of the disease behind bars.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Louisiana prisons, according to the Department of Corrections website

The Camp J lawsuit, which was filed by the Promise of Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center, also names officials at the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Department of Health as defendants. 

The lawsuit argues that the move will both endanger the patients being transferred, as well as prisoners who are already being housed at Angola, many who are medically vulnerable. 

“By crowding large numbers of COVID-19 patients into a facility far removed from hospitals and adequate medical staff and where social distancing is impossible, the DOC is implementing a deadly course of action that controverts not only public health recommendations but also basic common sense,” the complaint reads. “If the DOC is permitted to carry out this LSP transfer plan, it will likely result in the death of dozens — if not hundreds or thousands — of people.”

The governor’s office, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit, but at the press conference on Tuesday, LeBlanc defended the decision to transfer prisoners to Camp J. 

 “I think it was the right move on our part, or I wouldn’t have done it,” LeBlanc said. “It’s a safe haven for those who are there, honestly.”

Camp J was formerly used to house prisoners in solitary confinement. It was known for inhospitable conditions, and was shut down in 2018.

“I think we made the right decision; it was a public safety issue, a staff safety issue and an offender safety issue,” LeBlanc told the Advocate after it shut down. He called the camp “not a good place to be” and the environment “somewhat depressing.” 

A summary of the Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19 issued last week described the plan as a way to support local jails “that cannot isolate infected inmates from the general population and do not have appropriate staff to care for them.” It  also notes that “Camp J is staffed independently of the other prison camps and existing Angola inmates have no contact with the Camp J facility housing sick these sick inmates.”

One of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit is currently being held at Camp J. He was transferred there from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison this weekend against his will after running a fever of 102.5 degrees and testing positive for the coronavirus. 

Now, according to the lawsuit, he is being held in an open dorm in Camp J with around 39 other people. 

“There is no physical isolation from the other patients,” the suit reads. “A lot of people are coughing and there are some patients hooked up to IVs or oxygen masks. There are two nurses who check on him once or twice a day. He was given Tylenol and sinus medication for his body pains and other symptoms.”

The suit alleges that people with coronavirus being held at Camp J will not have access to sufficient health-care services should their conditions become severe. According to the suit, the nearest hospital in West Feliciana Parish does not have any ventilators and only has two ambulances, meaning a patient requiring serious care would need to be driven to New Orleans or Baton Rouge. 

It also argues there are other options for those prisoners who have tested positive instead of being transferred to Angola:

“Perhaps even more disturbingly, the State of Louisiana through the LDH has set up the Medical Monitoring Station (MMS) with hundreds of beds ready and able to take non-acute COVID-19 patients,” the suit reads. “This facility has appropriate personal protective equipment, trained medical professionals of all qualifications, and appropriate quarantine facilities, yet the DOC has chosen not to move incarcerated patients there.” 

At the press conference on Tuesday, LeBlanc said that currently around 46 people were being housed at Camp J, a combination of people transferred from local facilities and prisoners from Angola who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

DOC convenes panel to assess possible furloughs for prisoners

The lawsuit comes on the same day that the Department of Corrections released a plan to review state prisoners for possible furloughs in response to the virus. 

In order to be considered for furloughs, a prisoner must be within six months of their release, have been sentenced to non-violent non-sex offenses, and have housing or a residence to recieve them.  

If the prisoners are being held in a state facility, they must also have pre-existing medical conditions that make them vulnerable to coronavirus. If they are being held in a local facility, they do not require pre-existing medical conditions to be released, but must have served at least six months of their sentence. 

LeBlanc said on Tuesday that only about 100 prisoners being held in state facilities would be eligible for furlough, while around 1,100 state prisoners being held in local jails would be eligible.  

The DOC has convened a panel that will review the prisoners to determine if they will be furloughed, consisting of the following members: 

  • Secretary of DOC, or designee
  • Director of Probation & Parole, or designee
  • Executive Director of Pardon & Parole Board, or designee
  • Victim’s Advocate, as appointed by the Governor
  • Executive Director of LA Sheriff’s Association, or designee
  • Executive Director of the LA District Attorney’s Association, or designee

Five out of six of the members must agree for a furlough to be granted. If a prisoner is released, they will be required to be on home-confinement with an ankle-monitor and active supervision. 

LeBlanc said that the reviews will begin on Friday, starting with about 40 cases, and will continue on a rolling, case-by-case basis for as long as the public health emergency issued by the Governor is in effect. 

Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative who brought the class action on behalf of prisoners, said she worried the panel was lacking in medical and public health expertise. 

“The panel that he has put together for his plan is in our view extremely limited,” Montagnes said. “It really only has voices of pro-law enforcement, pro-incarceration, and really nothing to counterbalance those voices. There is no one from public health. No doctors on that panel. No one to make an assessment about the potential risk to that individual.”

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...