From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans jail is experiencing what appears to be the largest outbreak of coronavirus among detainees and staff at the facility since May. In a press release on Friday evening, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) said that there are 76 people in custody at the jail and 23 members of the jail staff who are currently positive for the virus. 

A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, Phil Stelly, said that the new numbers came after a round of mass testing, and that all 867 people who are currently in custody at the facility have been tested. 

The press release noted that none of the detainees are symptomatic, and none are in the hospital. How exactly the jail is defining “symptomatic,” however, is not entirely clear, and Stelly, the Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, was not immediately able to provide an answer.

The Sheriff’s Office did not provide the same information regarding the number of symptomatic or hospitalized staff members. Of the staff, 21 are with OPSO, and 2 work for the jail’s contracted medical provider, Wellpath. 

The jail has struggled at times throughout the pandemic to contain the virus among those incarcerated at the facility.  

At its height, in May, there were over 90 confirmed cases in the facility. The jail’s compliance director, Darnley Hodge, instituted a policy of mass-testing and quarantining in hopes of eliminating the virus from the facility altogether. 

For several weeks, the Sheriff’s Office provided daily updates regarding testing and the number of people in custody who were positive for the virus. The numbers of positive cases began to decline steadily near the end of May, and in mid-June the Sheriff’s Office announced that they had no known cases of coronavirus among the jail population

But, in fact, the virus was still in the facility. Just a week after the sheriff’s office announcement, a man died in custody at the jail and was later confirmed to have been positive for COVID-19 by the coroner. (The cause of death, however, was ultimately determined to be “multiple drug toxicity.”)

The office has not provided regular updates on COVID-19 numbers since mid-June, but in July,  the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that at least 11 inmates and staff had tested positive. 

Health experts have warned that jails and prisons are conducive to the spread of the virus due to the inability for incarcerated people to social distance, as well as a lack of sanitary and hygienic products. 

Currently, according to data from the New York Times, the top 14 clusters of coronavirus in the country are all in prisons or jails. 

The press release on Friday from OPSO announced that as the city and state continue to move forward with reopening, the jail would be “implementing additional protocol for our staff and inmates to re-enforce the need for each and every member of our OPSO community to do their part in preventing the spread of COVID-19.” 

The updated protocols include quarantining any “affected individuals” — including those with non-COVID-19 health issues — in segregated cells, according to the press release

The release also said that hand sanitizing stations have now been set up throughout the jail.

For staff, the release laid out the same protocols that have been in place for months, such as remaining in their assigned posts while at work, self-reporting contact with any person “who has a presumptive positive or positive test for COVID-19” before entering the facility and staying home if they feel sick.  

Meanwhile, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has announced that he is planning to renovate an old jail building, called Templeman V, that has not been in use since 2015, in order to house 125 people in custody who were either recently arrested or have tested positive for coronavirus. 

In an email to a federal judge overseeing the jails consent decree, a lawyer for Sheriff Marlin Gusman said that during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 at the jail, OPSO had trouble finding enough space to quarantine different populations of detainees. 

“In addition to the several inmate classifications already in existence before the pandemic, OPSO suddenly had additional classifications for inmates, such as COVID+, suspected COVID, roll-in quarantine, etc.,” the attorney wrote. “Additionally, OPSO realized that placing a newly suspected COVID inmate on a pod with inmates who were nearing the end of their two-week quarantine could ultimately subject the latter group to an infection/re-infection. OPSO was in a constant struggle to keep two units empty so that it could sanitize and flex populations in order to have clean, disinfected units.”

The cleanliness and conditions inside of Templeman V were the subject of much criticism by jail monitors and the federal judge overseeing the consent decree before the city stopped using the facility in 2015. In 2014, one monitor called them “appaling.” 

That renovation will cost $9.3 million, according to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. 

While the majority of that money would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $2.3 million will be funded with local taxpayer dollars. 

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...