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

The number of detainees who have tested positive for coronavirus at the New Orleans jail spiked over the past several days after a round of mass testing, with 97 positive cases confirmed as of Wednesday afternoon. 

The Sheriff’s Office has released 37 of those people, leaving 60 in their custody.

The 97 positive cases that have come back so far are about 30 percent of the 320 tests administered to inmates. The number of positive detainees who are still being held at the jail represent around 7 percent of the total number of people in OPSO custody — which was 804 as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Last Friday, before most of the results had come back from the push in testing, there were only 24 inmates who had tested positive.

Despite the increase, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said they currently were not planning on moving any detainees who have tested positive in their custody to Camp J at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which a number of local jails have done

The new wave of testing is part of an attempt by the jail’s Compliance Director, Darnley Hodge, to test every person being detained, whether symptomatic or not, in order to determine how to segregate prisoners and assign guards in order to prevent further spread of the virus. There are 57 tests pending results, and hundreds more inmates that still need to be tested. 

According to Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Phil Stelly, detainees who have tested positive are currently being medically segregated in a portion of the main jail facility at the Orleans Justice Center. Previously, when there were far fewer cases, they were being isolated in the Temporary Detention Center, a separate building of the jail complex.

In addition, 56 staff members of the Sheriff’s Office and 13 of the jail’s medical provider Wellpath have tested positive for the coronavirus, and last week an employee of the Sheriff’s Office died from the virus.  

In other places across the country, mass testing at correctional facilities has revealed high rates of coronavirus infections. Over 1,800 prisoners at a state prison in Ohio, about 73 percent of the total population of the facility, tested positive for the coronavirus after the Governor instituted mass testing in the prison system. Rikers Island in New York city has been dealing with an outbreak for weeks, with about 10 percent of the jail population testing positive. According to The Wall Street Journal, over 800 corrections workers in New York City have tested positive for the coronavirus, and eight have died. 

The extensive outbreaks in the New Orleans jail and correctional facilities elsewhere appear to confirm what experts and advocates have been warning for months: The inability for prisoners to social distance, along with often inadequate hygiene inside jails and prisons, makes them particularly vulnerable to rapid transmission of the virus. 

“The reports of an exponential rise in COVID-19 positive tests in the Orleans Justice Center is the outcome we feared,” said Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokesperson for the Orleans Public Defenders, in a statement to The Lens. “For weeks, we have called on city leaders and officials to depopulate the jail for these reasons. The jail remains unsafe, even at its current numbers. It is not safe for our clients, for those working in and around the jail, and for our community.”

She encouraged criminal justice stakeholders to “actively work to reduce the jail population further, so the virus can be better managed in the jail.”

Not everyone has been in favor of releasing inmates as a response to the threat of the coronavirus.  

In New Orleans, prosecutors objected to bond reductions by arguing that inmates could spread the virus to the general public if released, and that defendants failed to show that the “Orleans Justice Center is not taking all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of Coronavirus to its inmates.” 

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, in a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards, warned that releasing inmates could cause a crime wave, and that sheriffs and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections “have put in place protocols that will allow them to deal with any outbreak that may occur in their facilities.” 

In late March, however, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman specifically requested that New Orleans judges work to release certain offenders and that a reduction in the jail population was necessary to allow them to adequately deal with the infection. 

One detainee at the Orleans Justice Center who spoke to The Lens on the condition of anonymity said he had tested negative for the virus, and was now being held in a cell with one other person on a tier with other detainees who have tested negative. 

He said they are being let out of their cells for limited periods of time, along with 10 other inmates on the tier, but aren’t being let outside.

Despite having tested negative, he was still concerned about potentially catching the virus.

“We’re still exposed to it, because certain staff when they interact with us are not wearing facemasks,” he said. 

Local prisoners across the state being moved to Camp J at Angola

Earlier this month, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections announced that it would implement a program of housing detainees from local jails who have tested positive for coronavirus at Camp J of Angola. 

Asked why the Sheriff’s Office has not moved to transfer Orleans Parish inmates there, Stelly, the spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, said that the jail was currently able to sufficiently separate prisoners, and therefore they were not considering taking up the DOC on their offer. 

“We have medically segregated everybody at this facility,” Stelly said. “There is no need for us to transfer anybody to DOC, because we have medically segregated everybody here.”

Stelly said that if the situation at the jail reached a point where that was no longer possible, they may reevaluate. 

Last week, Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state officials were sued over the Camp J program. The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of current inmates at Angola and local detainees who were there or could be transported there, claimed that the plan would isolate patients without access to proper medical care and expose medically vulnerable prisoners to the virus. 

According to a situational awareness report issued yesterday by the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, there are 89 inmates from local jails who have tested positive for coronavirus being held at Camp J of Angola for isolation, with the largest groups coming from Baton Rouge, which sent 18 inmates, Franklin Parish and Caldwell Parish, which sent 10 each, and St. Tammany, which sent  9. 
According to the report, the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association has reported 187 total positive cases in local jail populations state wide — which appears to include those detainees being held at Camp J. It was unclear if that number included the new cases from the New Or

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...