From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Someone — he won’t say who — advised New Orleans jail Compliance Director Darnley Hodge against mass testing the detainees and staff at the New Orleans jail for the coronavirus during the early days of the outbreak in the city. It was advice he heeded for a while. But as the disease spread across the state and New Orleans became a national epicenter, and as symptomatic inmates and members of the Sheriff’s Office staff also began to test positive for the virus, Hodge told The Lens that he changed his mind about mass testing. Now, he wishes he had sooner. 

“We didn’t do it earlier— don’t ask me who, because I’m not going to say — but I was advised not to do it,” Hodge said in a Wednesday interview. “I was advised not to do this mass testing of inmates and staff. I was given a number of reasons why I shouldn’t do it. However, after three weeks went by I decided to ignore the advice that I was given and conduct the mass testing. I guess my regret is that I didn’t do it when I first thought I should do it.” 

As the jail’s Compliance Director, it is Hodge who makes decisions about day-to-day operations of the jail — including who gets tested for the virus. That authority was stripped from Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman as part of a federal consent decree the jail has been under since 2013.

The intention to test every inmate at the facility was first announced in an update put out by the Sheriff’s Office on April 6. At that time just 38 inmates had been tested, and 18 of those had come back positive.

As of Wednesday morning, the jail had tested over 700 detainees. 125 of those tests have come back positive — 88 of those people are still in custody. There are 47 tests with pending results. According to Phil Stelly, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, no more than five of the positive inmates in OPSO custody are showing symptoms of the virus.

Despite Hodge’s initial reluctance, the New Orleans jail appears to be one of the few correctional facilities in the state currently conducting testing on such a large scale. As of Monday, it had tested more of the people in its custody than all of the facilities managed by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections combined. 

“We just wanted to get ahead of it,” Hodge said. “I personally don’t like waiting to see what happens and then reacting. Sometimes we need to get ahead of things, and this is one thing I want to get ahead of.” 

The goal, Hodge said, is to eradicate the virus from the facility completely. But given the nature of the jail, and jails in general, that could be a challenge.

“Our objective is hopefully to be able to say by the end of May that we’ve tested and retested all staff and all inmates and that the facility is now clear of COVID-19,” Hodge said. “Our concern is the fact that institutions like this — prisons, jails, mass housing areas — are incubators, breeding grounds for viruses such as COVID-19.”

The unique threat of coronavirus in correctional facilities is something that advocates, public health experts, and the Orleans Public Defenders have been stressing for weeks

“The jail has seen increasing positives, both from our clients and from the staff. This was long predicted,” said Danny Engelberg, chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders. “Unlike what we’re seeing in some parts of the state, jails are nowhere near flattening the curve. They are increasing in their levels of infections and increasingly dangerous places for people to be. This dangerousness reiterates the dire need to reduce the number in the jail for  the safety of people who are housed in the jail, for people who work in the jail, for healthcare providers in the jail, and the community at large.”

‘The fact is that they contracted it from staff’

In addition to the 125 positive inmates, 70 members of the Sheriff’s Office staff have tested positive for the virus, along with 13 employees of the jails healthcare provider, Wellpath. 

Yesterday, the second OPSO staff member died from the virus. He was a 27-year veteran of OPSO, Lt. Garry P. Duplessis. The first was Vanessa Mackey, who died on April 15. 

Hodge said that it was likely a staff member, who was coming and going from the facility, that brought the virus into the jail in the first place. 

“The fact is that the inmates are here in a confined area, and even though we don’t like to admit that, the fact is that they contracted it from staff,” Hodge said. 

The high number of employees who have caught the virus has also created a challenge in terms of maintaining sufficient staffing levels. Of the 70 positive OPSO cases, just 19 have been cleared to return to work. And in addition to those who have tested positive, there are some staff who are voluntarily self-quarantining. 

“We have a number who are afraid to come to work because they have underlying health conditions, and because of that don’t want to be in this environment,” Hodge said. “ So it is a challenge at the moment staffing the facility in the way it should be staffed. We have to modify things at times. But these are unusual times.”

The plan, Hodge said, was to only have staff who had tested negative for the virus supervising the pods with inmates who had tested negative. But initially, that did not go exactly as he had hoped. 

“Even the best laid plans don’t work as we anticipate it,” Hodge said. “So we are readjusting, reestablishing, retraining, reorienting, reexplaining to staff so that they understand.” 

Hodge said that he had been taking measures to ensure the staff are fully aware of the ways to protect themselves and others from the virus— including hand washing, avoiding touching their face, and wearing a mask, which Hodge said they were required to do. 

“It’s a war,” he said of the fight against the virus in the jail. “And like any war, it’s important that staff — our soldiers — understand the rules of engagement.” 

Still no plan to move New Orleans detainees to Camp J

Since the virus hit New Orleans, the jail population has dropped dramatically due in part to efforts from advocates and public defenders, along with declining arrests. The inmate population as of Wednesday was 818, down from more than 1,000 in early March. 

On March 26, Gusman himself wrote a letter to the acting chief judge of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court asking the court to consider releases for non-violent offenders without a criminal history in order to open up space in the jail. 

But Hodge said that despite the decrease in jail population, there is still difficulty in finding the space to properly segregate inmates. Pods of 60 beds have been occupied by as few as 5 people in order to seperate them from the rest of the population, leaving large portions of the jail unusable. 

“To say that the numbers are sufficiently low enough now for us to easily segregate and quarantine — that’s not exactly true,” Hodge said.

One option available to Hodge is sending inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 to Camp J of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which a number of other local Sheriff’s have utilized. 

As of Monday afternoon the Department of Public Safety and Corrections reported that 109 local inmates are currently being held in Camp J, from a handful of parishes throughout the state.

The DOC, along with the Governor and the Louisiana Department of Health, are currently facing a class-action lawsuit over the Camp J program. The suit argues that by isolating COVID positive inmates at Camp J they won’t be able to access sufficient medical care, and will also be putting the rest of the inmate population at Angola at risk. 

But Hodge said on Wednesday that there were still no immediate plans to transfer New Orleans detainees to Camp J or any other state facility. 

“We have not ruled it out, it is still an option,” Hodge said. “We don’t rule out any possibility in terms of what we might do. But at the moment we don’t think it’s necessary. We think we are managing our inmate population without doing that.”

Currently, DOC is reporting an additional 51 confirmed cases of the coronavirus at Angola on top of those who have been transferred there from local facilities. 

Back at the jail, Danny Engelberg of the public defender’s office said that he is hearing from clients concerns over their inability to social distance, their cells not being cleaned sufficiently, and being given limited medication.  

In addition, a lockdown has left many confined to a cell for as many as 23-and-a-half hours a day, which has been a strain on both their mental and physical health.

“Our clients are scared of getting sick,” Engelberg said. “We are seeing when we participate in virtual court that our clients are standing so close to each other as to be touching and that they are not wearing masks. We can only imagine what they are going through behind the jail doors. We do not know how to console their families when they reach out. It would be a lie to tell them that things will be OK. We are scared for them too.”

While Engelberg says he applauds the efforts to implement mass testing at the facility, ultimately the only way to prevent the spread behind bars is more releases and to bring in fewer people on new arrests.  

“No matter how hard they work, and no matter how much they do, they are going to be unable to contain an outbreak in a jail,” Engelberg said. “And that’s what we’re seeing.”

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...