Among the plaintiffs' exhibits filed in a 2020 lawsuit that sought to stop Camp J transfers was an architectural case study on prisons and COVID-19, which describes Camp J as poorly ventilated, too confined and located far away from adequate healthcare facilities. (Gumns v. Edwards case file)

Last month the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) began transporting people who tested positive for COVID-19 from local jails from around the state to a facility at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola known as Camp J — a shuttered part of the prison that once served as a restrictive unit used to discipline prisoners. 

Now, there are over 100 detainees being held at the camp, and filings from a class action lawsuit intended to put a stop to the transfers offer new details about how the plan is working — though some points remain in dispute. 

According to the state corrections department, the use of Camp J is in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and that the detainees are being safely isolated and cared for. 

“Nearly all of the patients admitted to Camp J have continued to improve and have not had any serious complications,” they wrote in an April 24 court filing. “No one who has been admitted to Camp J has died.” 

But attorneys with the Promise of Justice Initiative and Southern Poverty Law Center — who are suing Gov. John Bel Edwards, the DOC and the Louisiana Department of Health on behalf of prisoners — warn that the plan puts both the inmates being transferred to Camp J and the medically vulnerable inmates already serving time at Angola at serious risk. 

They claim that inmates at Camp J are not being housed up to CDC standards, are too far from hospitals should their conditions deteriorate, and could potentially spread the disease throughout the rest of prison. 

The DOC’s plan was announced as a means of taking the burden off local jails that were not equipped to properly care for inmates with COVID-19, and in the most recent court filings DOC has warned that halting the plan would exacerbate the spread of the disease at local facilities and “that one could easily use their imagination to picture the catastrophic consequences of illness and death.”

But the plaintiffs in the case disagree. They argue that the DOC has not instructed local facilities on how to create their own isolation capacities, and that the plan disincentives them from attempting to do so. 

In addition, they argue that the Medical Monitoring Station at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, which is partially staffed by state Probation and Parole officers and Louisiana State Police, could house the sick inmates. As of Tuesday May 5, there were 387 beds available at the Morial Convention Center, according to a May 5 situational awareness report. There, they argue, they would be closer to major hospitals. 

Angola is about 30 minutes away from the nearest hospital: West Feliciana Parish Hospital in St. Francisville. But the plaintiffs have argued that the small hospital is poorly equipped to handle critical COVID-19 patients. Several inmates have been taken from Camp J to a hospital in Baton Rouge, about an hour away.  

The parties to the lawsuit presented evidence at a hearing on April 30 in front of U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge. 

In subsequent post-hearing filings, attorneys for the Governor, DOC and LDH argued that the case should be thrown out.  The plaintiffs, on the other hand, asked the court to halt transfers to Camp J, and require a site inspection along with “an assessment of medically appropriate isolation spaces.”  In the alternative, they asked that Camp J be staffed adequately, implement greater sanitary and hygienic procedures, and ensure that policies are in place to ensure social distancing and the prevention of cross-contamination of the virus between Camp J and the rest of the prison.

It is unclear when a ruling will be made. Spokespeople for the governor, the Department of Corrections, and the Louisiana Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment, and attorneys for the plaintiffs declined to comment. 

‘It does not act as a hospital’

According to the DOC, inmates who are brought to Camp J are first housed in a dormitory style unit called Bass, with beds spaced six feet apart, for approximately seven days. If they show signs of improvement, they are moved to a cellblock for an additional seven days for isolation. Following the fourteen-day regimen they are tested twice again for the disease, and if they are negative both times, the inmates are returned to the facility they were transferred from. 

During that 14 day period, according to DOC, the inmates are regularly monitored by a nurse practitioner and two to three registered nurses. 

DOC lawyers said that the department has renovated the facility in order to prepare for the inmates with COVID-19. They wrote in a brief that “thousands of dollars to provide air conditioning and other upgrades such as new beds and the like for Camp J,” and that the camp was cleaned prior to the arrival of any transfers. 

The department has maintained that Camp J is reserved for housing detainees with relatively mild cases of COVID-19. 

“Camp J is being used only as an isolation and monitoring facility. It does not act as a hospital and does not provide treatment to any Covid-19 patients that require ventilators, oxygen, or IV’s,” they wrote. “Any patients showing serious medical symptoms beyond isolation monitoring are sent to an appropriate outside hospital (typically Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge) for any necessary medical care.”

They have said in court filings that there were two inmates who were transferred to Camp J who required hospitalization, but that they were taken to the hospital “immediately upon intake because their symptoms were more severe upon intake than those allowed by the Camp J isolation criteria.” 

But in the lawsuit the plaintiffs dispute that all the cases at Camp J are so innocuous. 

“There were at least 30 people who are really, really sick,” an inmate who was being held at Camp J wrote in an affidavit. “Some of them have respiratory issues. One person has pneumonia in his lungs. Nobody has been taken to the hospital. I was told by the nurse that ‘this is our hospital.’ There are no doctors.”

In a brief, lawyers for the plaintiffs also called the DOC’s claim that no inmates were receiving oxygen or IVs at the camp “plainly untrue,” and that the use of oxygen and IVs was confirmed by the testimony of the nurse practitioner who works at the camp in a court hearing last week. 

In their own filings, the DOC has since admitted that at least one Camp J inmate was instructed to use oxygen, but because he did not, he had to be sent to the hospital in Baton Rouge.

Inmates at Camp J have also complained that the conditions there are unsanitary.

“The cells have rust and mold, which can cause respiratory issues even for healthy people,” the plaintiffs wrote in a brief. One inmate at Camp J “testified that he is confined to his cell 23 hours a day. The water is discolored and brown. The patients clean their own cells. There are rats and spiders coming in and out of the cells.”

DOC has called the allegations “self-serving” and said they were undermined by the testimony of the nurse practitioner and photographs from the camp.

Plaintiffs also take issue with the fact that positive inmates are all being housed together in a dormitory style setting. According to the CDC, the housing of COVID-19 positive patients together in a correctional setting, known as “cohorting,” “should only be practiced if there are no other available options.”

Coronavirus in Louisiana prisons and jails

As of May 5, there were 134 COVID-19 positive inmates being held at Camp J. They have come from over a dozen parishes throughout the state, with the most (18) coming from East Baton Rouge. According to court filings, however, East Baton Rouge Parish has recently decided to stop transferring sick inmates to Camp J. 

The New Orleans jail, which is housing over 80 inmates who have tested positive for the virus, has declined to utilize the option of sending inmates to Camp J. Compliance Director Darnley Hodge, who is in charge of jail operations for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, has said that the jail’s staff is managing the virus fine within the facility. 

The Department of Corrections has confirmed that 338 prisoners in state correctional facilities have tested positive for the virus, including 72 at Angola in addition to those being held at Camp J. 

Of those cases, 217 are from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women — which has two temporary sites as a result of the 2016 floods. LCIW appears to be the only prison currently testing asymptomatic inmates. (Gov. John Bel Edwards has said that mass testing at correctional facilities is among the state’s priorities as it begins to surge its testing capacity this month.) The majority of the positive cases at LCIW — 126 — were asymptomatic. 

There have been four confirmed deaths of state prisoners from the coronavirus. Three of those, including the most recent, have occurred at Angola. 

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...