Dr. John E. Morrison, who was until this week the medical director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, has stepped down from his position, a spokesperson for the department confirmed on Friday. Morrison had been employed by the department since April 2018.

According to the spokesperson, Ken Pastorick, Morrison resumed his full-time position with LSU. 

“Dr. Morrison has always had a passion for medical education and surgery,” Pastorick wrote in an email. “This week he resumed full-time clinical duties as the Section Chief for the LSU Medical Center’s Division of General Surgery in New Orleans. He is also the Vice Chair of Education for the LSU Department of Surgery.”

In an interview, Morrison said his decision had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic or the department’s response to the virus, which he defended vigorously. 

“My decision to get back to clinical practice was made several months ago,” Morrison said on Friday. “It has nothing to do with COVID or coronavirus.”

“I was very involved in the department’s preparation for this, and quite frankly I think as a department, understanding that any corrections institution is going to be at a higher risk for impact by the virus, the department has done a very good job — a very good job — in preparing for this epidemic,” he said.

Morrison said he believed that Dr. Randy Lavespere, who has been the medical director at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, was acting as interim medical director. 

Dr. Morrison’s last day as medical director was Tuesday, April, 14, the same day that he was named — along with the governor, the secretary of the Department of Health, and the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections — in a lawsuit over ongoing transfers of prisoners and pretrial detainees who tested positive for the coronavirus from around the state to Camp J Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

The lawsuit claims that isolating coronavirus patients at the camp will leave them without adequate medical care and will substantially increase the risk of transmission throughout Angola. The program will “likely result in the death of dozens—if not hundreds or thousands—of people,” the suit says. 

“It is Dr. Morrison’s responsibility to provide medical support for the system’s COVID-19 response in conjunction [with] the Louisiana Department of Health,” the lawsuit reads. “Dr. Morrison has been involved in the DOC’s COVID-19 response at every stage and signed off on the transfer plan as medical authority.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit charge that the Department of Health was not involved in the DOC’s decision to implement the transfer plan and say that the transfers go against an April 8 LDH guidance memo on prisoner care. LDH rescinded the memo the same day it was issued, which some critics believe was in response to political pressure from state corrections officials. 

Morrison said he didn’t know why the memo was rescinded, but the recommendations were already being implemented. 

“I did read them when they sent them out,” Morrison said, “and to be honest this is stuff we’d been doing for weeks. There was nothing new in those recommendations. And I had been contacted by several other people who wanted to make recommendations, and when I told them what we had done and been doing for weeks, they said, ‘Oh, ok.’ They had nothing else to add.”

In an affidavit taken on April 1st as part of an earlier legal attempt to block the transfers of detainees to Camp J, Morrison defended the department’s program

“In my professional medical opinion, the utilization of Camp J to house local offenders is both medically appropriate and the most prudent course of action available to the health and safety of DOC offenders and staff,” the affidavit reads.

In the affidavit, Morrison called the DOC’s response to COVID-19 a “massive undertaking” and said that they had “developed a plan to protect the health and safety of all offenders within the DOC system.”

“I think there has been a lot of misperceptions about the Department of Corrections and their preparation for this,” Morrison said on Friday. “I know there’s been a lot of misperception. This Department was completely aware of what was going on, we were proactive, and when I talk to people at the CDC we went above and beyond their recommendations.”

According to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections website on Friday there are 78 state prisoners who have tested positive for the coronavirus and 60 staff members who have tested positive. One DOC staff member, who worked at Angola, has died from the virus. 

Earlier this week, the governor and the secretary of the DOC announced plans to review prisoners for furloughs as a response to the coronavirus. 

On Friday, Morrison said that the decision whether or not to release prisoners was above his pay grade, but suggested that some would be better off staying in prison. 

“I don’t know what their home situation is that they’re going to be going back to, but we are monitoring these people very closely. We have health care available to them all the time. Quite frankly, I think for some people they are in a much more protected environment.”

This story has been updated with comments from Dr. John Morrison.

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...