A week after the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office announced that there were no known cases of coronavirus at the New Orleans jail, a man being held at the facility collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office on Tuesday confirmed that he was positive for COVID-19 at the time of his death.

Christian Freeman, the man who died in custody on June 25, was 35 years old. Jason Melancon, a spokesman for Coroner Dwight McKenna, said that Freeman was positive for the disease. But he said Freeman’s “cause and manner of death remain under investigation, pending additional studies and toxicology.” 

He noted that preliminary findings showed Freeman had hypertensive cardiovascular disease, and there was no evidence of significant trauma. 

A Sheriff’s Office spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.

Freeman’s uncle, Shannon Freeman, who was making funeral arrangements for Christian, said he got word of his nephew’s positive COVID-19 test from the funeral director, who was informed by the coroner. 

“My question to the funeral director was, when she called, I said very specifically, ‘Was he COVID positive, or is he COVID positive?’ And she said to me that the coroner said to her that he is COVID positive. Not past tense, but present tense.” 

In the early days of the pandemic, the New Orleans jail had a significant outbreak of coronavirus, with over 90 positive inmates at the facility at one point. The jail’s compliance director, Darnley Hodge, instituted a policy of mass testing and quarantine in hopes of eradicating the virus. 

In a June 18 press release, the Sheriff’s Office announced that it had been successful in doing just that, and that every inmate had been tested. They also said they would be preparing for “phase two testing.” 

“When COVID-19 first emerged, we recognized that correction centers like ours were extremely vulnerable which is why we acted as quickly as possible to protect our inmates, staff and the New Orleans community,” Hodge said in the press release.

But with Freeman’s positive test following his death raises new questions about how many cases have gone undetected at the facility, and whether or not the virus is continuing to spread. 

“Being in prison, or awaiting trial shouldn’t be a death sentence for anybody. Just as a family, we want to know what happened,” Shannon Freeman said. “We really, truly want to know.” 

Christian Freeman was the second man to die at the jail in recent days. On June 19, Desmond Guild collapsed “due to an unspecified medical issue,” according to a release put out by OPSO. He was then taken to the hospital and pronounced dead. The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that autopsy results showed Guild was free of the virus

The coroner’s office said that the cause of death was still being investigated, but preliminary findings showed Guild had pulmonary thromboembolus — a blood clot in an artery in the lungs — and there was no evidence of significant trauma. 

“I’m not trying to place blame or disparage anyone at the facility, I don’t want to do that,” Shannon Freeman said. “We as his family just want to know how a 35 year old man just dropped dead in his cell. What happened?”

“It shouldn’t be a death sentence for these guys, that’s all I’m saying.”

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...