In this file photo from July 2014, a group tours a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)
The Department of Corrections says there are 9,000 fewer people detained in Louisiana prisons and jails than when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March, but over half of that reduction is the result of changes to how parole violations, immigration infractions and pre-trial detention are handled. There hasn’t been a dramatic change to the traditional prison population as a result of the pandemic.
Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, and advocates say the state’s prison system hasn’t done enough to release its own inmates and prevent the spread of the virus within its walls.
Prisons and jails are highly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, especially since it’s difficult to keep inmates and staff six feet away from each other in correctional facilities. Health experts have suggested that prison and jails reduce their populations in order to make social distancing easier.
The state set up a panel to consider prisoners for early release because of COVID-19 — which could have helped reduce the prison population — but the group only ended up shortening sentences for 68 people. The prison system has 32,000 inmates total.
The Department of Corrections maintains it is operating under restrictions as to who it can release. Jimmy LeBlanc, the secretary of the prison system, can issue temporary releases for prisoners, but the law that allows him to do so hasn’t been widely used in decades, said Natalie LaBorde, an assistant deputy secretary for the corrections agency, during a legislative hearing Wednesday.
The department set up the full panel to review prisoners for early release — in part because the furlough provision that would let people out is used so infrequently. But LeBlanc also added additional restrictions.
The only inmates the panel considered were already within six months of the end of their sentences and those convicted of nonviolent crimes. The six-person panel — which included representatives from the prosecutors and sheriffs associations — also had to overwhelmingly vote for inmates’ sentences to end early.
Advocates said neither LeBlanc, as the head of the prison system, nor local sheriffs had to impose such restrictions on themselves. They said the panel was established and the extra limitations were imposed for political reasons.
“We think the secretary has the authority to do this much more quickly on his own. We think sheriffs can release people much more quickly on their own,” said Vanessa Spinazola, executive director of Justice And Accountability Center of Louisiana.
Medical concerns also should be guiding more of the discussions over releases, said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice Of The Experienced, an advocacy organization run by formerly incarcerated people. Since the prison system only considered releasing people who had a few months until their sentences ended, it left a lot of people who might be vulnerable to COVID-19 without help, he said.
Lawmakers at the hearing also questioned why inmates the panel considered for early release weren’t told they had a shot at getting out early. Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said notifications might have helped families and attorneys make a better case for the inmates to go home.
Some people were turned down for early release and expedited parole because they didn’t have adequate housing plans in place for their post-prison life. But Reilly said his organization had ramped up to provide housing to ex-inmates in anticipation of more COVID-19 releases. Reilly said the prison system should have reached out to him about anyone who needed a housing plan.
Reilly said he’s also worried that the pressure of an ongoing lockdown in the state’s prisons and jails is creating stress that could lead to violence. The prison system has a temporary ban on inmate visitation, classes, programming, religious services and many other activities because of COVID-19.
“They need to see their families and they need some sense of hope,” Reilly said.
The state panel that was approving early inmate releases was suspended in June. James — who is the head of the House Criminal Justice Committee — said he would approach Gov. John Bel Edwards about getting it to meet again and take up more cases.
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