The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Credit: U.S. Justice Action Network

Corrections officials at all levels across the state did not do enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people locked up in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers in Louisiana, leading to unnecessary death and suffering, a report released on Tuesday by the legal non-profit Promise of Justice Initiative argues. 

Across the country, jails and prisons have been hot spots for the virus, in part due to the inability for people incarcerated to social distance. According to the New York Times, 400,000 people in jails and prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 1,800 incarcerated people and correctional staff have died from the virus.

According to state data, at least 2,605 state prison inmates and 646 Department of Corrections staff working at state prisons have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic. And at least 31 of those inmates and five staff members have died. Reporting on cases and deaths local jails, meanwhile, many of which hold both convicted state inmates and pretrial local inmates, has been inconsistent at best.  There is no unified public reporting of cases or testing in those facilities. (The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which runs the city’s jail and has experienced several spikes in cases, hasn’t provided a public update since last month.) 

“In Louisiana, officials at federal, state, and local facilities have responded poorly to the pandemic by failing to implement mass testing and preventative measures, quarantining people in areas of prisons that had been previously closed due to decaying conditions, and failing to provide adequate medical care to those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms,” the report reads.

The report by PJI synthesizes arguments that advocacy organizations in Louisiana have been making since the beginning of the pandemic: that the state has failed to do enough to decrease the number of people in prisons and jails in order to mitigate transmission in those facilities, and to implement mass testing and preventative measures to protect those inside. 

In a statement, Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, called the report “factually inaccurate and disingenuous at best,” and DOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc defended the work that his staff has done “managing the pandemic.”

“We have followed Louisiana Department of Health and CDC guidance throughout the COVID-19 response,” LeBlanc said. “Starting in February, our Department took proactive and aggressive measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic and limit the introduction of the virus into Louisiana’s state-run prisons. We have been in direct communications with LDH and CDC regarding COVID-19 response measures in state facilities including testing, medical isolation, and quarantine protocols, and continue to revise these measures as state and federal guidance evolves.” 

Among the facilities the report looks at is the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, which had one of the first major outbreaks of coronavirus among correctional facilities in the state and led to the death of the first death of a federal prisoner. 

Employees at Oakdale said they were not provided sufficient protective gear or information regarding the virus in order to reduce transmission, and as of November 8, eight prisoners at the facility had died from the virus, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General. The IG report found “numerous failures in Oakdale officials’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak that undermined their ability to contain the spread of the disease at the complex,” including failure to screen prisoners and staff, provide personal protective equipment, isolate prisoners who tested positive, and limit prisoner movement. 

In one case, a 67-year-old wheelchair bound diabetic man named George Escamilla had been approved for release from the facility. But that process took months, and Escamilla contracted coronavirus. He died at a hospital near the prison two days after his scheduled release date

At state facilities, as well, the PJI report argues that “instead of implementing common-sense reforms to reduce the spread of COVID-19,”  the state response has been “woefully inadequate to contain the virus and properly identify and treat those infected with it.”

Steps the state did take to mitigate the spread of the disease in prisons did not go far enough, the report argues. A “furlough review panel” set up in April was meant to reduce the prison population by allowing early release prisoners with underlying health issues who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes. But out of the approximately 1,200 people eligible for review, the panel only approved 100 prisoners for release before the panel was suspended in June, when the state moved to Phase 2 of reopening. Of those 100, only 68 were actually released — about 0.2 percent of the state’s overall prison population.

In addition, the report is critical of the state’s decision to house infected prisoners and pretrial detainees from local jails at a shuttered prison camp at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, known as Camp J.

PJI, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center challenged the policy in federal court, arguing that housing sick prisoners far from any hospitals was “a deadly course of action that controverts not only public health recommendations but also basic common sense.” 

That claim was ultimately dismissed. The judge in the case ruled that the Camp J plan was “carefully developed to limit the impending harm of the spread of coronavirus throughout all prisons and jails in the state of Louisiana,” and that the risk of mass death that the lawsuit warned of did not pan out in reality. 

Pastorick pointed at the judge’s ruling in the case in the DOC’s statement on the report, claiming that it contained the “same false narratives raised in the organization’s federal lawsuit that was resoundingly dismissed earlier this year.”

But in the report, PJI reiterated their opposition to the plan. 

“Camp J is not a healthcare facility—it is a previously shuttered unit notorious for its cruel conditions, and it is located within LSP, a prison that was recently found by a federal court to provide an unconstitutionally inadequate level of medical care,” the report reads. “This plan subjected people who were potentially at risk of losing their lives or sustaining lifelong injury to conditions that likely increased risk of disease and death.”

The report alleges that the Department of Corrections not only failed to take necessary steps to prevent the spread of the virus, it provided misinformation to both families of incarcerated people and the public, and by failing to implement mass testing it downplayed the extent to which the virus may have actually spread in its facilities. 

“From the beginning of the pandemic, we as advocates, along with people on the inside and their families found it extremely difficult to get accurate information from officials about what was happening in prisons and jails, let alone influence their response to the threat of COVID-19 in those settings,” said Rebecca Ramaswamy, an attorney for PJI, during the press conference on Tuesday morning. “And the one reliable source that we’ve had all year is the eyewitness accounts of people on the inside.” 

In their response, the DOC included letters from prisoners praising the work of the warden, staff, and healthcare workers at Angola regarding the pandemic. One letter, dated May 28, 2020 notes that the facility is doing an “outstanding job” in the “coronavirus fight.”

“We have seen Doctors, Nurse practitioners, Nurses, Mental Health Social workers, and Emergency medical technicians inside the dorms checking temperatures, mental health conditions, talking to inmates about the seriousness of the virus and how to protect ourselves,” the letter reads.

The PJI report, however, says that at Angola the “medical care provided to those with symptoms indicated that the prison was in denial about the spread and severity of COVID-19,” and that “staff were limiting medical care and only testing those with severe symptoms of COVID-19, particularly high fevers.”

On Monday, Louisiana health care workers were provided the initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Some health care officials have argued that incarcerated people should be prioritized for vaccination due to their increased risk. Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference earlier this month that there had not been determinations made about when Louisiana prisoners would receive the vaccine, but that the state would be following federal guidance. 

“As COVID-19 vaccinations are being shipped across the country, the DOC is following the lead of the CDC and the Louisiana Department of Health, while working closely with both agencies and the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association,” Pastorick said in the statement. “Once the DOC receives its allotment, the Department’s medical staff will administer the vaccinations in the state-run prisons based on CDC and LDH guidance. We are currently working with the LSA and LDH on the administration of the vaccine in the local jails. The DOC is working to prepare and educate staff and inmates on the administration and benefits of the vaccination.”

This story has been updated with a statement from the Department of Corrections.

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...