Louisiana says it’s getting ‘mass testing’ of prisoners underway

The governor says the state will test inmates at three facilities

Angola
In this file photo from July 2014, a group tours a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is also known as Angola. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Louisiana has started a “mass testing” program for COVID-19 in prisons weeks after experts said the state should be doing more to monitor for coronavirus in correctional facilities.

The state intends to test inmates and staff at the Allen, Raymond LaBorde, and Rayburn correctional centers. The testing at Allen — located in Kinder — has already started. It will ramp up at Raymond LaBorde and Rayburn next week, the governor said Thursday. The three facilities collectively house 3,900 prisoners. 

When testing finishes up at those facilities, the state will have done widespread testing in half of its prisons since the pandemic started. Women prisoners — who are mostly living in two temporary facilities — were widely tested in the spring. 

There’s also been some targeted testing of at-risk populations at Louisiana State Penitentiary, the country’s largest maximum security prison commonly called Angola. Earlier this month, the prison system said it was screening for coronavirus in its assisted living dormitories — where elderly and sick prisoners stay. It also performed mass testing in dorms for inmates who are senior citizens, but not in need of nursing-home care.

Of the 594 at-risk inmates tested, the system found 38 people who were positive for coronavirus, said Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. But screening beyond the nearly 600 at-risk inmates hasn’t been extensive at Angola. In total, only 864 of the approximately 5,500 inmates who live there have been tested at all.

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Experts have criticized Louisiana for not doing enough testing among its inmate population and correctional staff so far.

About 38 percent of the 2,193 inmates it has tested have turned up positive for COVID-19 since March, according to data provided by the Department of Corrections. At least a fifth of the prison staff who have been tested — either by the prison system or on their personal time — has come up positive as well, according to the agency. 

“If you have 40 percent positive testing, you are not going anywhere near enough testing,” said Chris Beyrer, a public health and human rights specialist at Johns Hopkins University, earlier this month. “That means for the most part, you are only testing people who are symptomatic.”

With more than 31,000 inmates, Louisiana has the largest prison population per capita in the world. About 15,000 are housed in the state prison system. Of those, about 15 percent have been tested for COVID-19, according to the state Department of Corrections. Seventeen inmates and five staff members have died from the virus.

The prison system said it was only testing people with symptoms earlier on in the pandemic because of the directives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other health experts. As of earlier this month, the state also hadn’t provided enough tests to screen the system’s 19,900 inmates and staff at least one time.

The state also isn’t tracking the testing of more than half of its prisoner population at all. About 16,000 Louisiana state inmates live full time in local jails run by sheriffs. The state Department of Health says it’s not monitoring testing or coronavirus outbreaks in these facilities.

Tracking infections in incarcerated settings has become more important. The 10 largest coronavirus clusters in the country have been in prisons or jails, according to a New York Times analysis. In a communal living situation like a jail or prison, the virus can spread very quickly. When it did mass testing among the women prisoners last spring, Louisiana officials found more than 75 percent of the female inmates were infected.

Large COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities can also affect the spread of the virus in the general population, according to experts. The journal Health Affairs found that one in six coronavirus cases in Chicago could be traced back to people moving in and out of the Cook County Jail. One of the larger, early outbreaks in Wuhan, China also took place in a detention center, Beyrer said.