Louisiana prisons hastily pull plug on resuming family visits during COVID-19

Prisons were planning to open to family visitation, but shelve decision

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)

Louisiana prisons have been preparing for about a month to resume family visits during the week of Thanksgiving after suspending them over eight months ago. But prison officials hastily pulled back on those plans Thursday, saying family visits would no longer take place in a few days. 

The prison system is worried about the rising COVID-19 infection rate in Louisiana’s population outside of the prison system, said spokesman Ken Pastorick. The infection rate within the prison system has been lower in recent weeks, but officials concluded it was not safe to introduce more outsiders into the facilities, he said.  

The decision to reverse course was sudden. Pastorick sent a reporter a statement Thursday morning confirming the prisons were going to open up to family visits — albeit on a restricted basis. 

“As the state is in Phase 3, and our infection rates within state-run prisons remain extremely low, we’ve decided the time is right to resume visitation,” he wrote in an email shortly before 10 a.m.

By noon, Pastorick called to say family visits had been postponed again — and he wasn’t sure when they would resume. 

The prison system has banned visits in general — from both family members and attorneys — since March 12 because of COVID-19. But officials planned to resume family visits, in part because nursing homes in the state had opened up to some visitors already.

Family members of prisoners said they had heard directly from inmates that visitation would resume for the holidays, though no official announcement had been made. 

Louisiana is one of 12 states where prison visitation — from both attorneys and family members — continues to be suspended, according to The Marshall Project. Twenty-seven states are allowing “legal visits” and another 13 have resumed “personal visits” on a limited basis, according to the news website.

Prior to Thursday, Louisiana was on track to prioritize family visits over in-person attorney visits — which were going to remain off limits. Officials said they thought the family visits would boost morale among inmates and staff and it would be particularly hard for inmates not to see family during the holiday season.

“It’s important to maintain family connections while you are incarcerated,” said Natalie LaBorde, general counsel for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, in an interview last week. “When you cut that off, it really takes a toll on people.”

But Louisiana’s coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are rapidly rising. Louisiana had 172 new cases per 100,000 residents this week, up from about 99 cases per 100,000 residents last week, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force — which includes Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci — told state officials that Louisiana should impose more COVID-19 restrictions to slow the local spread.

The sharp increase in the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations occurred after plans to open up the prisons more were already underway.

“Back when we started with this plan three or four weeks ago, there was no spike,” in COVID-19 cases, said Randy Lavespere, the medical director for the prison system, in an interview Wednesday, before the prison system shelved its visitation plans.

In preparation for the visitors, the Department of Corrections had drawn up a list of guidelines and received plans from wardens about how the individual facilities would handle visits with social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols.

Under the submitted plan, each prison would have had to stay beneath a certain infection rate to qualify for family visits. A facility would only have been able to have one half of 1% of its population diagnosed with COVID-19 to open up for visits at all.

Visitation was supposed to take place on a dorm-by-dorm basis within individual prisons. Each dorm would have had a time slot and inmates would have had to meet with their family at the same time as others in their dorm to discourage widespread mixing. Dorms with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 would have been shut down to visitation for 14 days, under the previous guidance from the Department of Corrections.

The family visits still would haven’t looked like they did in the pre-pandemic era. They would have been significantly shorter — only an hour long. People would have had to wear masks, remain six feet apart from one another and had a barrier between them. They would not have been able to eat during the visit and there would have been no touching of any kind — something that disappointed family members.

The types of people able to visit would also have been restricted. It would have been limited to immediate family members only and the people would have had to be at least 14 years old. Only two people would be able to visit with an inmate at one time, according to proposed guidelines released by the Department of Corrections.

Families with people who are incarcerated had mixed reactions in interviews to the prison system’s decision to open up visits on a limited basis. Some said they planned to participate, but that it would be difficult not to hug or touch their loved ones.

Others worried that it was too dangerous — and would put the inmates and family members at too much risk for catching COVID-19.

“I, for one, am not taking myself or my children,” said Dominque Jones, whose father has been incarcerated at Louisiana State Penitentiary for 40 years, in an interview earlier this week. Before the pandemic, she and her family tried to visit her dad every Sunday.

“I understand wanting to go, but I think they are actually putting themselves in danger by going,” Jones said. “My father is telling me not to come.”