Despite having suspended routine transfers as a means of limiting the spread of the coronavirus behind bars, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) has approved the transfers of 81 people incarcerated at the Orleans Justice Center to other local jails throughout the state in the last two months, according to a spokesperson for the department. 

Meanwhile, the jail has not released any new information following the report of a new outbreak at the facility by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate last week. For months, at the start of the pandemic, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) was putting out daily press releases that detailed the number of COVID-19 cases among detainees and jail staff, along with testing information. 

Those updates stopped in mid-June, when OPSO announced that there were “no known positive cases of COVID-19 among the inmate population.” In the same announcement, OPSO said that “in an effort to remain transparent, OPSO will continue to keep the public informed on the status of COVID-19 within its facilities.”

But despite reports of new cases, OPSO has not released a public statement on the status of COVID-19 at the jail since. 

It is unclear what relationship, if any, the transfers from the jail have with the coronavirus outbreaks that have occurred in the facility. Ken Pastorick, the spokesperson for DOC, said in an email that the transfers to other jails are approved on a “very limited case by case basis.” 

“In general, transfers are suspended,” he said. “However, where needed, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is doing on a very limited case by case basis, under special circumstances, DOC transfers that are reviewed and approved by DOC’s Chief of Operations.” Those circumstances, he said, “include medical and mental health, behavioral issues, overcrowding, and sentencing length of the DOC inmate. “ 

A spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions about the reasons for the transfers from the New Orleans jail, the new outbreak, or whether or not regular public updates on COVID-19 infections would resume. 

While most of the people incarcerated at the Orleans Justice Center are pretrial detainees, the transfers all appear to have already been sentenced to Department of Corrections prison time.  But Danny Engelberg, chief of trials at the Orleans Public Defenders Office, said that some of those people also still have outstanding matters in Orleans Parish.

“We’ve been hearing from clients and clients’ families about being transferred,” Engelberg said. “Several of our clients still have pending matters in Criminal District Court, which obviously complicates the issue with access to be able talk to them.”

Engelberg said that his office began hearing about the transfers from clients and clients’ families in late June or early July. Some, he said, had been transferred as far as Richland Parish — over four hours from New Orleans by car. But he said he has received little information from the jail or the Department of Correction on the reasons for the transfers or who is being chosen.

“We don’t know and we haven’t heard what is motivating or how they are selecting clients,” he said.

At its height, in May, the jail confirmed that over 90 people in custody were positive for the virus.  And when last month the Sheriff’s Office announced that no one in custody, that they were aware of, had the virus, it turned out that they were mistaken. 

At the end of June, Christian Freeman, who had been in custody in the jail since late last year, collapsed in his cell and died. During his autopsy, it was revealed that he was positive for COVID-19. (The coroner’s office has not released a cause of death for Freeman, and a spokesperson said last week that it would likely be “at least another month before there are any updates.”)

Following Freeman’s death and positive COVID-19 test, however, the jail’s Compliance Director, Darnley Hodge, sent a memo to the federal judge overseeing a long-running consent decree for the jail saying that all the people who had been living with Freeman had tested negative for the virus, with the exception of one inmate whose test had not come back yet.

A week later, the Times-Picayune reported that at least five inmates and six jail staff had tested positive. There was no indication whether the positive inmates had been in contact with Freeman.

Engelberg said that he believes the jail should reduce its population to allow for the better possibility of social distancing, but he said that moving detainees to other jails was not the answer.

“We know the jail size needs to be much lower to be able to contain this next outbreak. We don’t believe we should necessarily only accomplish that by moving people around from one place of custody to another,” he said. “And it certainly triggers some public health concerns — I’m not a public health expert — but moving people around together, especially with an outbreak in the jail currently, could pose additional risk. Both for people who are being transported together and also into new facilities.“

The jail’s population has decreased significantly over the past several months. According to daily records maintained on the New Orleans City Council website, there were 776 inmates in Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office custody as of Monday, down from nearly 1,100 in early March. 

Pastorick, the spokesperson at the DOC, said that the jail “the jail must screen the DOC inmate for COVID-19 prior to transferring out,” and the receiving jail must have the capacity to quarantine those transferred inmates for 14 days.

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...