Among the plaintiffs' exhibits filed in a 2020 lawsuit that sought to stop Camp J transfers was an architectural case study on prisons and COVID-19, which describes Camp J as poorly ventilated, too confined and located far away from adequate healthcare facilities. (Gumns v. Edwards case file)

As recently as two weeks ago, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections was reporting zero positive cases of COVID-19 among prisoners in state correctional facilities — a seemingly major achievement given the way the virus has swept through jails and prisons across the country throughout the pandemic. But on Tuesday evening, as the virus surges throughout the state thanks to the state’s low vaccination rate and the highly infectious delta variant, the DOC said that there are now more than 50 prisoners testing positive. 

In addition, 11 COVID-positive individuals have been transferred from local jails to Camp J, a facility in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Camp J was a notorious disciplinary camp that was shuttered in 2018 and was reopened at the beginning of the pandemic to quarantine state prisoners and pretrial detainees being held in local jails. The controversial plan was opposed by criminal rights reform groups and the subject of federal litigation.

As cases decreased across the state and in prisons, the Camp J quarantine facility had been closed. But it has now been reopened in response to the recent spike. 

There are currently 54 cases among people incarcerated at Louisiana’s nine state-run prisons, according to DOC, and 54 cases among the staff at those facilities. The largest group of those cases are at Dixon Correctional Facility, which is reporting 32 positive cases among prisoners and 17 among staff.

Vaccinations are not mandatory for state prisoners, but the vaccination rate of the state prisoner population is higher than the general population, with 72 percent of prisoners fully vaccinated, compared to about 37 percent of the overall state population. At Dixon, however, only 57 percent of prisoners are vaccinated, and the staff vaccination rate at the facility is even lower at 43 percent. 

Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the DOC, said that officials are encouraging prisoners to get the vaccine by providing them with a $5 canteen credit. He said he did not know what percentage of DOC prisoners or staff who tested positive for the virus were vaccinated. 

It is less clear how the surge of cases is impacting individuals incarcerated at local jails across the state, where pretrial detainees, along with about 15,000 state prisoners, are being held. Throughout the pandemic, there has been next to no statewide data on how the pandemic has impacted people those facilities — including the number of infections or deaths. 

A report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor in June noted that The Louisiana Sheriff’s Association “collected and provided DOC with some statistics on the number of positive COVID-19 cases in local correctional facilities, but its statistics did not differentiate between the various types of prisoners housed locally.” Many local jails house convicted state prisoners along with pretrial detainees under local jurisdiction. In addition, according to the audit, the Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force “surveyed all 64 Louisiana sheriffs requesting information on their COVID-19 response and only received six responses. As a result, there is a lack of information on the prevalence of COVID-19 in local correctional facilities.”

Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, did not respond to questions from The Lens regarding COVID-cases in local jails. 

The New Orleans jail, however, has been providing periodic updates on infection rates to a U.S. District Court judge because it is under a federal consent decree. 

As of Monday, there were nine people being held in the jail who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a letter from Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. He also noted that seven of his staff members have recently tested positive, along with one staff member of the jail’s contracted medical provider, Wellpath. 

Reopening of Camp J

The 11 COVID-positive individuals being held at Camp J were transferred from jails in East Feliciana Parish, West Baton Rouge Parish, and Washington Parish. 

In April 2020, the DOC and Governor John Bel Edwards were sued over the Camp J plan — along with their broader handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons — by civil rights attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Promise of Justice Initiative. The groups warned that Camp J was far from hospitals, lacked adequate health care, and said that transferring local prisoners and detainees there could “result in the death of dozens — if not hundreds or thousands — of people.”

DOC officials argued that by freeing up space, the Camp J plan would likely save lives by reducing the spread of COVID in local jails. 

By May of last year, more than 100 people had been transferred to Camp J from jails throughout the state. In court filings, a number of them complained of not being given proper treatment and unsanitary conditions — including mold, dirty water, and rodents.  But the most dire predictions put forward in the lawsuit did not transpire, and in mid-May United States District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge denied a motion to halt the plan. She ruled that the plan was “well thought out” and noted that “none of the alleged harm has materialized.”  

The DOC has said that everyone who was transferred to Camp J recovered from the virus.

(More recently, in a separate case, Dick ruled that several aspects of medical care at Angola are unconstitutional and that the prison has been “deliberately indifferent to the inmates’ serious medical needs.”)

On Monday, a coalition of Louisiana organizations opposed to solitary confinement in the state renewed their campaign against Camp J by appealing directly to local sheriff’s and urging them to refrain from sending COVID positive individuals in their custody to the facility.  

In a letter to the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association executive director Michael Ranatza, the Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition — consisting of around a dozen organizations, including Promise of Justice Initiative — argued that Camp J was not an appropriate place to isolate people with COVID-19 and warned that people in custody may even hide symptoms to avoid being transferred there. 

“The plan did not have good outcomes for the health of the people transferred, who often took more than a month to subsequently test negative,” the coalition wrote. “It was not broadly used by sheriffs, and it was costly. From our conversations, we also heard that incarcerated people with COVID-like symptoms hid those symptoms instead of reporting them, for fear of transfer to Camp J.”

Coalition members said that they would be interested in working with sheriffs “to find other ways to safely quarantine the people incarcerated in your facility on or off site, including through accessing the $700 million in funding announced by the White House” to help mitigate the spread of COVID in local jails. 

Pastorick, with the DOC, criticized the letter as not providing any alternative solutions. 

“Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition proposes no solutions for medically isolating and quarantining state inmates housed in small local facilities that are not able to medically isolate or quarantine,” he wrote in an email. “Aside from seeking $700 million in federal funds, what do they recommend? Pursuant to CDC guidance, Camp J has been set up as a medical facility to medically isolate individuals infected with COVID. In addition to DOC medical and security employees, Camp J is staffed with contract medical personnel including nurses. Prior to opening at the beginning of the pandemic, Camp J was cleaned, painted and retrofitted with air conditioning and televisions.”

Kiana Calloway was formerly incarcerated at Angola and now works with the Stop Solitary Coalition. He says he spent 17 months in Camp J before it was previously closed in 2018, and doubts there is any way it could be retrofitted to provide a humane environment, given the facilities history.

“You can’t clean up trauma with paint,” he told The Lens. “You can’t patch up emotions with plaster. It’s impossible to do that. If we shut it down, we shut it down for a reason.”

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...