As COVID-19 spread across Louisiana, the state’s prison system shut down educational programs, stopped in-person visits from family, eliminated face-to-face religious services and suspended meetings between inmates and attorneys. But thousands of inmates have continued to be sent to work even as those restrictions on the other parts of their lives were imposed.
Louisiana uses its 32,000-person prison population for a range of services, including many tasks performed outside of the prisons. Dozens of prisoners are still cleaning state office buildings, a job that puts them in contact with members of the public. Hundreds work in factory settings similar to those that have been prone to coronavirus outbreaks elsewhere. Some of these prisoners have been deemed “essential workers” during the coronavirus pandemic because the state depends on them to keep its facilities functioning.
Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and prisons are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Most state inmates live in open-air dormitories with dozens of others. They also shower, eat and exercise in large groups. Officials stopped allowing almost all outsiders onto prisoner grounds in March in an effort to prevent the virus from reaching its population, they said.
Ninety-five inmates from the Dixon Correctional Institute clean eight state office buildings and the Louisiana Capitol complex in Baton Rouge that are visited by hundreds of people almost every day. It’s not clear who would provide those janitorial services if the inmates were held back at the prison because of health concerns.
“We are doing everything it takes to keep us operating and clean. There are a lot of routine things needed,” said Natalie LaBorde, deputy secretary for the corrections agency, about the prison work details that are operating during the pandemic.
LaBorde said the prison system is taking a lot of precautions to make sure inmates who have to work in public facilities are safe.
Those prisoners cleaning inside state buildings now arrive in the evening — when fewer people are around — and work shorter, five-hour shifts instead of a full workday. They live together in the same prison dormitory, which limits their exposure to other inmates. They also have their temperatures taken before and after their work shifts.
Louisiana State Police is taking a similar approach, according to its spokesman Lt. Nick Manale. It oversees about 150 state prisoners who live in the State Police barracks. The agency separated those prisoners who are continuing to work into “temporary housing” away from the rest of the cohort. Those inmates also work at night to limit their contact with the public.
Officials consider the distancing to have been a success so far. No inmate that works in the downtown Baton Rouge office complexes has become ill or tested positive for COVID-19. Four inmates who work for the State Police tested positive, but they were removed from their jobs immediately and isolated. They have all since recovered from the illness, said Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
In an effort to maintain distance from the general population, some inmates are sleeping in the same place they work, according to advocates for incarcerated people.
Jane Hogan is an attorney who represents inmates at parole hearings. She said one of her clients sleeps at night in the same warehouse at the Louisiana State Penitentiary where he works as a supply clerk.
A handful of men who work as staff at the governor’s mansion have been isolated at that facility. Before he was released on parole last week, the governor’s butler, Richard Cage, was sleeping with a few other inmates at the mansion because of coronavirus, said Kerry Myers with the Louisiana Parole Project. He and other inmates working at the mansion had been quarantined there since March. Under normal circumstances, they would live in the State Police barracks, Myers said.
The governor’s office and state police declined to comment on the inmates living and working at the mansion. They said sharing such information would be a security risk.
There are areas in which the state has completely held back inmate labor. The state police cafeteria is temporarily shuttered because authorities aren’t willing to let the inmates who work there return to their jobs yet, Manale said. Inmates who typically work in a cafeteria in the Capitol also haven’t returned.
Inmates work for far cheaper than a civilian could or would. Some aren’t paid anything and work to earn a shortened prison sentence. Others make pennies an hour.
Inmate labor generates money for the state prison system. The state paid the Department of Corrections $2.8 million in the last state budget cycle for prisoners to clean those downtown Baton Rouge office buildings, according to its own budget estimates. Its 12 factories and workshops — which make everything from furniture to mops — brought in $9.8 million in the last fiscal year.
The Department of Corrections initially shut down a license plate factory and a metal furniture factory at Louisiana State Penitentiary and a garment plant at the women’s prison as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. But other prison factories — including those that make mattresses, soap and silk screen products and that run food distribution for the prison canteens — remained open. Inmates continue to work there with extra protocols in place.
The prison system checks the temperatures of inmates entering and leaving the factories. The system also provides those prisoners personal protective equipment to wear while they are working, Pastorick said.
Some factories and workshops have been repurposed to make materials to help combat the coronavirus. Inmates produced nearly 60,000 containers worth of hand sanitizer — from 8-ounce bottles to 55 gallon drums — at the beginning of the crisis. Men and women across five prisons also made over 74,000 cloth face masks — enough for each prisoner to have two for personal use. They also made more than 1,200 face shields and more than 300 gowns that the prison system is using while treating COVID-19 patients.
Still, correction officials say they aren’t requiring everyone to work. Prisoners who are deemed high-risk for COVID-19 — from a medical or mental health standpoint — started being placed in housing away from the general population in March. They aren’t required to go to their jobs currently, Pastorick said.
But some advocates question how a prison system so heavily dependent on inmate labor is operating effectively after removing so many inmates from the workforce. At its high point on May 11, the prison system had over 4,000 inmates in quarantine or isolation, according to state emergency operations documents. On June 11, it still had 2,800 people in isolation or quarantine — many of whom likely worked on a regular basis.
Wendy Matherne suspects her son, Jonathan West, was assigned a job this month because the coronavirus caused a shortage of prison labor. West has been at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center for a year, but was only asked to work in the past couple of weeks.
The prison has required him to monitor other prisoners who are on suicide watch by walking the tier where they are housed, Matherne said. West — who was convicted of child abuse — isn’t well-suited for the job, his mother said, because he has severe mental health problems and is on medication that makes him drowsy. He has told her that he’s worried he will fall asleep.
While Matherne said the prison told her West’s new assignment just happened to coincide with the coronavirus outbreak, she thinks the prison doesn’t have enough staff and prisoners available for all of its tasks.
“He had to work overnight from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. with no notice,” she said.
Ivy Mathis has heard similar concerns. Mathis spent 26 years at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women before being released in 2018.
She’s hearing from friends who remain incarcerated that inmates are being cycled through jobs they aren’t trained to take. Mathis, who worked as a cook for the women’s prison, said she’s been told that women who don’t have much experience in the prison kitchen are suddenly being asked to make food for up to 400 people. That’s because women who normally work in the kitchen have tested positive for COVID-19.
“If you’ve never had to carry the load as far as cooking a 25- or 50-pound bag of grits to feed the whole compound, it’s going to be hard,” Mathis said.