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

When Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced late last month that everyone over the age of 16 was eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, that included everyone detained at the New Orleans jail. 

But so far just under a quarter of them have gotten their shots, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, and questions remain regarding how OPSO is going about procuring the vaccine and when there will be enough doses for the rest of the jail population.

Just over 200 of the 869 detainees in the New Orleans jail have received a vaccine, Sheriff Marlin Gusman said in a statement Monday. He said the office was “diligently working to make the vaccine available to any inmate who wants it.” 

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to an inquiry from The Lens regarding how many of the 203 detainees were fully vaccinated with either one shot of the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine or both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. 

Assuming that all are fully vaccinated, the vaccination rate at the jail is roughly equal to that of the city as a whole — around 23.5 percent. If a significant number of those inmates have initiated but not completed a vaccine series, the jail is behind the city. The rate of initiated vaccinations citywide is 37.4 percent.

Gusman also said on Monday that all “Sheriff’s Office employees, staff and contractors working at OPSO facilities have been vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Vaccinations began at the jail last month when 33 detainees who were over the age of 65 with co-morbidities received shots. OPSO officials said last month that the jail was set to receive 100 additional doses of the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine, and 200 doses of Moderna. 

But according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health, OPSO received a shipment of 75 doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine last Thursday, and 100 in mid-March. The state does not provide information about which of those went to staff and which went to inmates.

There is no record of the jail receiving Moderna doses. It was not immediately clear how more than 200 detainees have received vaccines when state records show only 175 doses appear to have been distributed directly to the jail. 

Phil Stelly, the spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, did not respond to questions about the data disparity before this story published. In a Tuesday evening email responding to the story after publication, he wrote that the Sheriff’s Office “received the second dose of the Moderna vaccine today and it will be administered tomorrow morning.”

“We order through the La. Dept. of Health and expect to receive another 100 this week. By tomorrow morning, we will have used all of the vaccine that we have received,” he wrote.

On Monday, Stelly said that so far the number of people vaccinated has been limited by the number of vaccines the jail has been able to procure.  

“As we get more, we will be offering them to inmates,” Stelly told The Lens on Monday. But he was not able to clarify how many doses had in fact been received. He said that he thought there were more doses on the way.

Stelly said he did not know how many inmates at the jail had indicated they would like to receive the vaccine if offered.

Meanwhile, as of late March, the rate of vaccinations at state prisons is running behind that of the state as a whole. Only about 14.5 percent of prisoners are fully vaccinated, compared to a vaccination rate of around 17 percent for the state’s total population. That is despite the fact that over 80 percent who are eligible have indicated that they would like to receive it, and the fact that state prisons are offering a $5 canteen credit for prisoners who opt to get vaccinated.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections and Public Safety (DOC) did not respond to multiple requests from The Lens for an update regarding vaccine distribution.

The state does not provide data on vaccinations at parish jails across the state, where, in addition to people being held pretrial under parish jurisdiction, about 13,000 sentenced state prisoners are held. 

LDH data appears to show that thousands of vaccine doses have been delivered to sheriff’s offices and jails, but it is not clear how many detainees have actually been inoculated. No one from the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association was available to discuss vaccination efforts on Tuesday, and a spokesperson for LDH did not respond to questions from The Lens. 

Throughout the pandemic, prisons and jails have been particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 due to the inability of prisoners to social distance. There have been over 3,000 reported cases of the virus in Louisiana’s prisons, according to data from the DOC, and 36 people have died. 

The New Orleans jail has experienced several spikes in COVID-19 cases throughout the last year. But according to the statement released Monday, there are currently no cases of the virus that OPSO is aware of. The office said they are in the process of conducting the 12th round of  mass testing of detainees and employees.

This story has been updated to include an additional comment from Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Phil Stelly.

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...