A federal judge has denied a motion in a class action lawsuit attempting to halt a Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections program that houses inmates from local jails across the state who have tested positive for COVID-19 at Camp J of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

United States District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge found that there wasn’t evidence to prove that housing inmates at Camp J was unconstitutional, and called the plan “carefully developed.”

“Plaintiffs have failed to present evidence that Defendants developed the transfer plan with knowing disregard for a serious risk of harm substantially certain to occur,” the judge wrote in a Friday ruling. “To the contrary, the Court finds that the plan was carefully developed to limit the impending harm of the spread of coronavirus throughout all prisons and jails in the state of Louisiana, and as set forth below, the alleged harm has not materialized.” 

The suit was brought by the Promise of Justice Initiative and Southern Poverty Law Center. Promise of Justice Initiative’s Executive Director Mercedes Montagnes said the ruling was disappointing. 

“We are disappointed with the result even though we knew we were fighting an uphill battle on this issue when we filed this action,” Montagnes said. “We will continue to find ways to try and bring our state’s COVID-19 response in prisons and jails more in line with public health for the safety of our clients and our community.”

The DOC has said that the intention of their plan to house local inmates at Camp J was to ease the burden of local jails who did not have the resources to properly isolate or care for inmates with coronavirus. 

Camp J was previously used as a restrictive housing unit to discipline prisoners, and was shut down in 2018. According to a Thursday update from the DOC, it is now housing 141 COVID-19 positive inmates from across the state.

The motion to halt the inmate transfers to Camp J, which was part of a broader class-action lawsuit over the state’s response to the coronavirus in prisons filed against Gov. John Bel Edwards, the DOC, and the Louisiana Department of Health, alleged Camp J had unsanitary conditions, insufficient medical care, and that prisoners were being housed contrary to Center for Disease Control guidelines. 

“The Court acknowledges that the conditions of Camp J may not be ideal for long-term or permanent housing,” the ruling read, “however, considering the purposes for which Camp J is being used, the conditions of Camp J are not unconstitutional.”

The judge also wrote that the patients at Camp J were recovering and that plan “seemed to be working.”

The motion to halt the transfers argued that by moving inmates to Camp J they would be further away from hospitals, and potentially expose the rest of the prison population at Angola to the virus, many of whom are medically vulnerable.

Angola has already seen eight inmate deaths from COVID-19, according to the DOC’s website on Friday. In addition to those being held at Camp J, 88 have tested positive for the virus. 

Overall, 375 state prisoners have tested positive and 10 have died.

The judge ruled “that while the Camp J transfer and isolation plan is not a ‘perfect plan,’ the well-intentioned efforts to decrease the risk of harm and the spread of the coronavirus throughout Louisiana jails and prisons belies a claim of deliberate indifference.” 

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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...