As the coronavirus spreads behind bars in prisons, jails, and detention facilities throughout Louisiana, a number of organizations are attempting to mitigate the damage of the virus on incarcerated populations while simultaneously thinking about ways the crisis can be used to push forward structural reforms of justice systems in Louisiana.

On Thursday, the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO) hosted a virtual panel of leaders from some of those organizations, along with an official from the Louisiana Office of Probation and Parole, to address the effects of COVID-19 on criminal justice reform efforts in the state. 

Prisons and jails are particularly susceptible to outbreaks of the virus, according to public health experts, due to limited hygienic resources and an inability for people to practice social distancing. Reducing the number of people behind bars has been a primary focus of criminal justice advocates as a response to the coronavirus, and many have urged local and state leaders to do whatever they can to release people from prisons and jails.

Currently there are 345 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among state prisoners in Louisiana, and five have died from the disease. In New Orleans, over 80 people being held in jail have tested positive for the virus.  

But for advocates hoping to change the criminal justice system, the coronavirus has just highlighted and made more urgent many of the issues they were already working on — decreasing the prison and jail populations, improving conditions in those institutions, and mitigating the negative collateral consequences of incarceration. 

“We don’t really know when it’s going to end, so people are still in this kind of crisis mode instead of vision mode,” said Vanessa Spinazola, Executive Director of the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana during the panel. “I think what some of us are trying to do is literally make space in our day to think about what the vision is, because I don’t know that we’re seeing it from our leaders. They are in crisis mode.”

“There needs to be some space in all of our conversations about ‘Where are we going? Are we going back to what we had before?’” said Spinazola.  “Because I think a lot of us in all these different sectors don’t think that what we had before was really working all that well.” 

Immigration detention in Louisiana

Homero López, Jr., Executive Director and Managing Attorney at Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy, said that the issue was even starker with regards to immigration detention, because many of the people being detained are not required to be. And many do not have criminal backgrounds.

“One of the biggest problems with detaining immigrants in general is that for the substantial majority of them this is discretionary detention,” López said. “This is a choice by the government to detain folks that they don’t have to detain.” 

In Louisiana, many people in detention are asylum seekers “who showed up at the border seeking asylum or were caught soon after crossing and were seeking asylum,” he said. “They have no criminal background.”

Lopez said that with over 100 confirmed cases of coronavirus among people being held in immigrant detention centers in the state — of about 750 nationally — some necessary light was being shined on the issue of immigration detention more broadly. 

“The current situation is bringing attention to the fact that we have a system that detains people for no other reason than that they are undocumented in the United States,” he said. 

‘I think we’re learning more about the folks that we supervise’

The panel also addressed the limited medical resources in correctional facilities, the way punitive measures such as solitary confinement can be used as a response to people getting sick, and the challenges for people getting out of prison as they face extremely limited employment opportunities.

Steven Lassalle, New Orleans district commander at the state Office of Probation and Parole, was the only panel participant working in corrections. He said that the coronavirus crisis was forcing his office into some new ways of doing things that he thought were improving their relationships with the people they are supervising. 

For instance, according to the DOC, probation and parole officers are “using video apps to check in on their caseloads where possible.” Lassalle thinks that may end up being a good thing beyond keeping people safe from the coronavirus.

“Historically probation officers sometimes didn’t know how to hold conversations very well with offenders,” Lassalle said. “Where now — I can’t see them, I’m not sitting in an office, and I have to speak — causes better conversation. I think we’re learning more about the folks that we supervise as a secondary component to this, that has allowed us to make better referrals and address the issues better.”

Lassalle also said that conducting virtual meetings could make it easier for people on probation and parole to avoid technical violations that sometimes result in jail time. 

“Not having folks come into the office and doing just a Google Duo or Zoom call with that person, not having them have to come in and take off of work — just a five minute call on their lunch hour. Some little things that we take for granted that we can accomplish are sometimes very large barriers and it causes, if not major violations, at least technical violations, with short term jail stays sometimes that continue to trip folks up.”

“Adversity is going to drive some things, and help us in seeing areas that we can improve, and I’m hoping that some of the things we’re doing can just propel into the future,” Lassalle said.

But Kevin Fitzpatrick, Director of the Office of Justice and Peace at Catholic Charities, said that overall the state’s efforts to respond to the crisis in prisons and jails had been underwhelming. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards established a panel to review a limited number of state prisoners for furlough as a response to the virus. As of Wednesday, the panel had reviewed 289 cases and granted release to 58.

“It’s really disappointing,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview with The Lens. “You know, the governor ran on his criminal justice reform accomplishments the past three or four years, but we’re disappointed that they haven’t been more aggressive in trying to reduce the prison population in the state.”

“There is no crystal ball here, because we’re very hopeful that this will help expedite people being released,” he said. “And in other states it has. But we’ve been a little bit slower here in Louisiana because — well, we’re not really sure why. We were hoping it would help improve prison conditions, because this obviously is going to go on for a while…. We are hopeful that changes eventually come, but right now we’re not seeing anything too drastic.”

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...