As the coronavirus continues to spread behind bars in state and local correctional facilities, around 600 non-violent state prisoners who were set to be reviewed for early release may no longer get that opportunity. 

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) said that a furlough review panel intended to reduce Louisiana’s prison population amid the outbreak of COVID-19 by reviewing select prisoners will be suspended when the state enters phase two of reopening, which is set to begin on Friday. 

Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the DOC, said the panel will officially end when Gov. John Bel Edwards lifts the state of emergency, and until then “the panel may reconvene if there is an unexpected uptick in the number of cases within our prison population.”  

As of June 1, 941 prisoners in state facilities had been tested for the coronavirus, with 540 testing positive. As of Wednesday morning, that number had increased to 559. It is unclear how many additional tests had been conducted. 

Fourteen prisoners, two at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at Hunt, and twelve at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, have died from the virus.

But most of the state prisoners eligible for early release are being held in local facilities, where it is harder to get a sense of the scope outbreak due to a lack of uniform reporting. 

Many local facilities are sending inmates who test positive for coronavirus to Camp J at Angola, and currently there are 71 from over a dozen parishes. 

Edwards and the DOC set up the review panel in April to review certain prisoners and determine if they were eligible for early release. Those prisoners had to be convicted of non-violent, and non-sex crimes, and within 6 months of their release date, among other criteria. 

The panel has not significantly reduced the prison population. As of June 1, the panel had reviewed 557 prisoners and approved just 92 for release — about 17 percent of the prisoners it reviewed and just 0.3 percent of the overall state prisoner population. 

Pastorick said that “the panel was created as a component of a collective mitigation effort to help reduce the risk of exposure and to help flatten the curve.”

Even before it was known how many approvals it would grant, the panel was criticized as an insufficient response to the threat of coronavirus behind bars. When the program was announced, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana, Alanah Odoms Hebert, called it a “vanishingly small step that would reduce our prison population by only a tiny fraction of what’s needed to protect public health.” 

The panel is made up of six members, which are all either representatives of corrections or law enforcement, in addition to a victims’ advocate. In order to approve a release, five of the six panel members must vote in favor. There are no public health experts or doctors on the panel. 

Responding to the panel’s anticipated suspension, Bruce Hamilton, attorney at the ACLU of Louisiana, warned that outbreaks in prisons and jails could have a detrimental effect on the state’s overall recovery. 

“The review panel was a woefully inadequate response to this public health crisis, and it’s disheartening to see DOC returning to business as usual with outbreaks continuing to rage through our state prisons,” he said. “Without stronger action by Governor Edwards and other state and federal officials, the festering outbreaks in our prisons will continue to threaten our recovery and hinder attempts to contain this pandemic.”

According to data from the New York Times, seven out of the ten largest COVID-19 clusters across the country are in prisons and jails. 

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...