ACLU sues Louisiana over its process regarding early release of prisoners

Panel asked to consider releasing 1,100 inmates, but fewer than 70 let out

By: - August 10, 2020 8:47 pm
Entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola

Two incarcerated youth being held in a juvenile justice facility at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are hoping to join a lawsuit aimed at shutting the facility down. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana says the state’s government is illegally withholding information about its process regarding the early release of prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic.

The advocacy organization is suing Louisiana’s Department of Corrections for documents related to a review panel that decided which inmates could end their sentences early because of the risk posed by COVID-19. The ACLU says the state prison system is violating the open meetings and public records laws by keeping the panel’s deliberations secret.

The prison system responded that the ACLU needs to be more patient. The advocacy organization is scheduled to get more of the information it’s seeking later this month, said Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the corrections agency, on Monday evening.

“The Department has worked well with the ACLU in the past, and we are fully committed to providing the documents responsive to their request. However, we are disappointed that they chose to file a lawsuit in this matter at this point, considering they were told the documents would be available on or before August 21, 2020, and that we are in the midst of responding to the world’s worst pandemic in a century,” Pastorick wrote.

Bruce Hamilton, an attorney with the ACLU, said he had already waited three months for the documents and he believes the corrections agency is dragging its feet over the request in an attempt to stonewall his organization.

“C-19 is still raging in LA’s prisons and jails, and the Furlough Review Panel was the state’s only real attempt to reduce its prison population in reaction to the pandemic — the public has a right to know (now) about the panel’s deliberations and decision-making,” Hamilton wrote in a text Monday evening.

Louisiana assembled the panel in mid-April to look over 1,100 inmates’ records to see if they should be granted an early release in response to COVID-19. But the panel discussed only 600 of those cases and the prison system ended up letting out just 68 inmates when the panel stopped meeting in early June. Additional inmates were offered release, but did not like the conditions that were required by the prison system — such as an ankle monitor and house arrest — so they chose to serve out the rest of their sentences instead, Pastorick said. 

“The numbers confirm that this secretive panel was a sham – and now state officials are adding insult to injury by stonewalling our attempts to find out why,” Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of ACLU of Louisiana, said in a statement announcing the law suit. 

The panel was made up of six representatives: the head of the Department of Corrections, head of probation and parole, executive director of the pardon and parole board, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and a victim advocate appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

With the exception of the victim advocate, these people could also send another person to serve on the panel as their designee if they wanted. An inmate was only granted release if he or she received support from at least five of the six panel members.

Louisiana has the highest prison population per capita in the world, with approximately 33,000 inmates overall. The state prison system whittled down the list of people who the panel could even consider for release to just 1,100 using strict criteria: The inmates had to be within six months of expected release date already; they couldn’t be convicted of a violent crime or sex-related crime; and they had to have an appropriate place to stay if released.

If they were serving time in a state prison, they also had to have an underlying medical condition. If they were serving their sentence in a local jail, they had to have served at least six months of a sentence already.

Those restrictions meant that most of the people considered eligible — about 1,000 of the 1,100 — were inmates housed by the prison system in local jails controlled by sheriffs. The prisoners in jails tend to be serving shorter sentences for less serious crimes than those housed in state prisons. Some of the prisoners deemed eligible for early release were enrolled in work programs that could require them to interact with the public already, Pastorick said. 

But outside of those details, not much else is known about the panel. The meetings were held in private, and the corrections agency won’t say how many times the panel met. It’s also provided no information about what votes took place or why some inmates may have been released while others were not, according to the Advocate.  The ACLU has complained that they don’t even know the names of the panel members who made the decisions.

The ACLU submitted its public records request to the Department of Corrections for documents related to the panel in early May. These include papers that would show what criteria was used for deciding whether a person should be released, the list of inmates who were potentially deemed eligible for release and the panel’s meeting minutes — among other things.

Health experts recommend that prisons and jails let out incarcerated people who aren’t considered a danger to the public.  Prisons and jails are hotspots for catching and spreading COVID-19. The county’s 14 biggest outbreaks of the disease have taken place in a prison or jail, according to The New York Times


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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.