Three formerly incarcerated women appeared on Facebook live Tuesday afternoon to draw attention to the growing number of COVID-19 cases among Louisiana’s female prisoners. The Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, which has prisoners at several locations throughout the state, has more cases than any other prison in Louisiana. One woman has died so far. 

The women who spoke out on Tuesday  — Consuela Gaines, Ivy Mathis, and Felicia Smith — are chapter organizers for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), the organization that hosted the video event. Gaines and Mathis were both held in state prisons in Louisiana, while Smith was in a federal facility. 

“Today we want to shine a light and help bring awareness to those who care to know about the daily lives, living conditions, mentality and spirituality of our sisters inside,” said Gaines. 

According to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) website, 176 prisoners under the jurisdiction of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women have tested positive for  COVID-19. The DOC has not released the name of the individual who died at the facility, but she was identified as Dorothy Pierre by VOTE in a post on their Facebook page.

Due to flooding in 2016 that damaged the original prison in St. Gabriel, most LCIW inmates are now held in two locations — Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, and the former Jetson Center for Youth juvenile correctional facility in Baker. The DOC reports COVID data at LCIW as a single facility, however, and does not provide details on whether infected inmates are located at Hunt or Jetson. 

116 of those who tested positive at LCIW were asymptomatic, which are currently the only cases of asymptomatic positives that the DOC is reporting. It is unclear if asymptomatic prisoners are being tested at any other facility. 

During the event, Gaines, Mathis and Smith took turns reading testimonies they had received from women at LCIW, which expressed concerns about being confined in close quarters with other inmates, limited testing and screening for prisoners, and guards moving between infected and quarantined tiers, potentially enabling the spread of the virus. 

“We receive emails daily from the women inside,” said Gaines. 

“These women are now being held in a dorm at Hunt that houses 80 women per dorm, and the beds are two to three feet apart — the same at Jetson,” Matthis said during the event. “They are sharing three stalls, three shower heads, three face bowls that are close to each other. … They don’t have the opportunity to get immune builders, and gloves, and PPE, and things of this nature. And so we just want you to know today that they need help.

Overall, 271 state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has the second most cases, with 51, and B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center has 33.

According to a situational awareness report, as of Monday, the DOC has tested more than 500 prisoners. Of those, 227 had come back negative, and the results of 11 were pending. 

At the video event, VOTE organizers encouraged viewers to call on Gov. John Bel Edwards to do more to reduce the prison population through the signing pardons and granting release to vulnerable and aging prisoners. 

But in a press conference on Monday, Edwards said that he was not planning on using clemency as a tool to reduce the prison population during the crisis. 

“I consider clemencies whenever I get to them,” Edwards said. “But I don’t regard clemency as one of my plans to depopulate prison because of this pandemic. People are going to get approved or not approved, but not really so much because of the pandemic. That’s not just part of the pandemic response as far as I’m concerned.” 

Edwards has, however, convened a panel to review around 1,200 non-violent prisoners for furloughs. That panel began meeting on April 17.

It is not clear exactly how many prisoners have been reviewed nor approved for release by the furlough panel so far, though an update from the DOC said that it had granted release to 34 individuals as of last Thursday. 

Edwards said at the press conference on Monday that he believed 25-30 percent of those reviewed were being granted furloughs, but he did not have specific numbers. 

Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the DOC, did not respond to questions from The Lens.

Consuela Gaines is no longer in prison, but she said the relationships she developed when she was locked up at LCIW have made the current state of affairs an emotionally difficult time. 

“It’s pretty stressful, because I left people who are like sisters to me, or people who I consider family,” she said in an interview following the VOTE event.  “To know that a lot of them are being subjected to this COVID-19 without being able to protect themselves, is stressful. I’m responding to emails right now, and they’re scared. They’re scared to death. You get people panicking. They’re people that I care about, people that I love, making those types of pleas. I feel like I’m in a helpless position… and it’s scary. I don’t want to one day receive an email from someone that this person died or that person died. But I know it’s inevitable.”

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...