The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Stein/The Lens)

In mid-June, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office sent out a press release announcing that there were no known cases of coronavirus at the New Orleans jail. A week later, Christian Freeman, an inmate at the jail died in custody. During the autopsy, it was revealed that he had been positive for the virus at the time of his death.

Freeman’s death on June 25 and subsequent positive test raised questions about whether the virus had in fact been spreading in the facility undetected. As of last week, the cause of Freeman’s death had not been determined, according to a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office, who did not immediately respond to a request for an update.

But on Monday, the compliance director for the New Orleans jail, Darnley Hodge, sent a memo to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the jail’s federal consent decree, claiming that there were  “no known changes regarding the COVID-19 status of staff and inmates” at the jail. 

According to the memo, in response to Freeman’s positive test, all 55 of the detainees being held in Freemans pod were tested for the virus. All came back negative, with the exception of one test that is still pending. 

In addition, all the staff that worked in the pod have been tested, and all came back negative. 

The memo also says that Freeman, who had been in custody since December, had previously tested negative for the virus. It does not specify when that test was done. 

Hodge declined to comment through a spokesperson from the Sheriff’s Office, and it is unclear whether the jail plans to test the rest of the inmates in the facility. 

The Sheriff’s Office, which had been regularly releasing updates about the number of coronavirus tests administered and cases detected among the jails inmates, has not put one out since the June 18 release that announced there were no known cases.

At the height of the outbreak at the facility there were over 90 positive inmates, but Hodge and Sheriff Marlin Gusman have touted the jails program of mass testing and quarantine in response to the virus as a successful effort to prevent further spread of the virus. 

Freeman was the second person to die in custody at the jail since officials claimed it was free of the disease. The first, Desmond Guild, died on June 19. Guild was negative for coronavirus when he died, according to the coroner’s office.  

The two deaths come as Gusman is attempting to convince a federal judge to allow him to retake control of the jail from Director Hodge. Initially, Gusman asked the judge to throw out the consent decree altogether, claiming that The two deaths come as Gusman is attempting to convince a federal judge to allow him to retake control of the jail from Hodge, an appointed official who controls day-to-day jail operations as part of a court order in the consent decree case. Initially, Gusman asked the judge to throw out the consent decree altogether, claiming that it sought “a jail utopia, reflective of the Court appointed Monitors’ personal preferences and idealistic aspirations,” but later agreed to walk it back.

Emily Washington, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who represents the plaintiffs in the consent decree litigation against the Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment. 

Nicholas 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...