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

Both the New Orleans jail and the Louisiana prison system are reporting significant COVID-19 outbreaks this week, among both staff and people in custody, with the most reported cases since the surge related to the omicron variant began late last year. 

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office on Monday reported that 95 detainees at the New Orleans jail are positive for the virus — about 11 percent of the current jail population — along with 68 staff members. That is up from 24 detainees and 49 staff cases that were reported two weeks prior.

Throughout Louisiana state prisons, 425 prisoners are positive for the virus according to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and 212 staff are positive — up from 150 staff and just 24 prisoners reported positive last week. 

The largest outbreak among prisoners is at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women – Jetson, with 100 reported cases. Allen Correctional Center was close behind with 93. Dixon Correctional Institute and David Wade Correctional Center also reported high numbers of prisoner cases, with 75 and 72, respectively. Among staff, the largest outbreak is at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — which accounts for over 70 of the current cases. 

The current spike in prisons and the city jail is significantly larger than those that occurred during the wave of cases associated with the delta variant over the summer. Neither agency is reporting the number of hospitalizations or deaths associated with the virus.

It is also unclear how either agency is navigating staff shortages caused by the hundreds of guards who currently have COVID.  Both the New Orleans jail and the Louisiana prison system struggled with serious staffing issues prior to the recent surge in cases. In April of last year, The Advocate reported that the Department of Public Safety and Corrections had over 400 unfilled guard positions — a vacancy rate of over 35 percent. OPSO has over 100 vacancies, and lack of staffing at the jail has been raised repeatedly by federal jail monitors who say that guard posts are frequently vacant. 

The Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to multiple questions from The Lens regarding staffing, and whether or not the surge among employees has impacted prison operations. It is also unclear what the current quarantine guidelines are for staff members who have had a COVID exposure. 

Earlier this month the department suspended visitations at all state prisons for the third time since the pandemic began. 

The New Orleans jail has also suspended visitor and volunteer access to the jail, in addition to in-person attorney visits — prompting criticism from the Orleans Public Defenders, who say they need full access to their clients. 

But in a statement on Thursday, Danny Engelberg, chief of trials for the public defenders, also urged OPSO to increase COVID precautions within the jail.

“As we saw at the start of the pandemic, jails and prisons are tinderboxes for community spread and deadly infection both in the jails and throughout the community,” Engelberg said. “We urge the sheriff to increase Covid precautions and begin booster efforts immediately.”

Over half of the detainees at the jail have been vaccinated, according to the Sheriff’s Office. But in late December, The Times-Picayune reported that no detainees at the jail had been given a booster shot —  which health officials say reduces the likelihood of infection and severity of illness related to the omicron variant. One person in custody, the office told the newspaper, had requested the booster and would receive it the following week. OPSO did not respond to a request from The Lens regarding an update on booster shots. 

OPSO employees are required to be vaccinated. That is not the case at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, where vaccination is optional for employees. Over the summer, a spokesperson for the department said the vaccination rate among staff was around 50 percent, and over 70 percent among prisoners. The department did not respond to a request for updated numbers, nor provide any information regarding whether or not prisoners were being offered booster shots.

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...