Nearly 900 people in custody at Louisiana state prisons were positive for coronavirus as of last week, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections reported, a greater than two-fold increase in cases from the week before, when the department reported just 420 cases. 

Adding to an already difficult situation, a fire at a nearby abandoned tire waste plant has forced the department to evacuate around 1,500 prisoners from Raymond Laborde Correctional Center — which is reporting the highest prisoner case count statewide.

The department is reporting a total of 891 positive cases among people incarcerated in Louisiana’s nine state prisons. 307 of those cases are at Raymond Laborde. The Advocate reported the fire and the subsequent transfer on Thursday, but a spokesperson for the department declined to provide the location of where they would be transferred due to security reasons. He said that the prisoners would be required to wear masks during the transfers.

The department did not respond to inquiries from The Lens regarding the transfers. 

The next largest outbreak is at David Wade Correctional Center, where 201 people in custody are positive for the virus. Dixon Correctional Institute has 97 cases, and Allen Correctional Center has 76.

In addition to the outbreaks among incarcerated people, last week the DOC reported 257 staff members currently positive for the virus. That is up from 212 the week before. 

The spike in prisons follows a steep increase in infections among the general population over the past month as the highly contagious omicron variant has taken hold across the country. Data from the past week, however, indicate that the omicron surge may have reached a peak, and many experts expect new infections to ease.  

Department data does not indicate whether or not cases are symptomatic, nor provide numbers on hospitalizations or deaths. The department has not responded to repeated questions from The Lens regarding their current protocols with regards to testing, quarantine, or whether people in custody have been offered booster shots — which the CDC has found to be effective in fighting both infection and serious illness related to the highly contagious omicron variant. 

According to an “Ongoing COVID-19 Response” document posted on the Department of Public Safety and Corrections website, the department has issued “uniform COVID-19 guidelines to state facilities regarding testing, quarantine, medical isolation etc. in accordance with CDC  [Center for Disease Control] recommendations” which “are updated routinely as new guidance issued from CDC.”

Currently, CDC recommends that incarcerated people who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after an exposure if they do not have symptoms, but should continue to be tested following an exposure regardless of vaccination status. A similar recommendation is made for fully vaccinated staff of correctional facilities.

For individuals in custody and staff of correctional facilities who are not fully vaccinated, CDC appears to still recommend a 14-day quarantine period after exposure. According to the DOC website, they are following that guideline for “isolation/step-down units.”

The DOC did not respond to requests for updated vaccination rates among both people in custody and staff. Over the summer the department reported that 70 percent of incarcerated people were fully vaccinated, while just 50 percent of staff were. 

The department announced that it was suspending in-person visitations earlier this month for the third time since the start of the pandemic — meaning that prisoners are unable to see their loved ones and family members. 

The DOC has not responded to questions from The Lens regarding whether or not there have been further changes in prison administration given the number of staff impacted. The department has already struggled with short staffing prior to the most recent outbreak, with over 400 vacant guard positions as of last year. 

It does not appear that DOC is conducting surveillance testing on prisons. According to its website, “prisoners are tested when they present with COVID symptoms, as a result of contact tracing/exposure risk, as part of targeted asymptomatic testing, prior to release, and/or prior to an outside medical trip.”

In the New Orleans jail, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office reported last week that there are 66 positive cases of COVID-19 among detainees — down from 95 the week before. It also reported that 34 OPSO staff, contractors, or volunteers were positive for the virus. That is also down, from 49 the week before. 

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...