In this file photo from July 2014, a group gets a tour of a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is also known as Angola. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)
Louisiana will start to allow visits from inmates’ families and loved ones at state prisons again Saturday, though attorneys and volunteers will still be prohibited from coming to the correctional facilities, according to the Department of Corrections.
Inmates haven’t been able to see their families in person in at least 12 months. The prisons shut down to all outsiders a year ago, on March 12, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic started to take off. Louisiana briefly considered reopening prisons for the holiday season in late November, but hastily pulled back on those plans when coronavirus cases started to spike in the state.
Louisiana has seen a sharp decline in hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 recently. Earlier this month, Gov. John Bel Edwards relaxed restrictions on businesses because of the progress the state had made. He also opened up vaccine eligibility to all prison employees this week.
If prisoners meet the community criteria to get vaccinated, they also have access to the vaccine. Earlier on in the vaccine process, a large number of prisoners who were offered the vaccine were opting to get it.
But the prison visits will still be more restricted than they were prior to the pandemic.
Visitors and prisoners will not be able to touch each other and must be kept at least six feet apart. A piece of plexiglass will also separate them. Prior to the pandemic, people were allowed to at least hug briefly at the beginning and end of their visits — and they weren’t typically separated by a barrier.
The visits will also be shorter — just 45 minutes — than they were before the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, some visits were allowed to carry on for a few hours.
All visitors and inmates will have to wear a mask and only two visitors will be allowed per prisoner. But the prison system said they will not require visitors and inmates to be vaccinated to see each other.
There is a possibility that family visits to a particular facility could be shut down temporarily in the future as well. The prison system said visitation will be set on a rotating basis by dorm, such that all the inmates living together will have their visits at the same time. If an inmate in a dorm gets COVID-19, then visitation for the entire dorm will be suspended until the inmates housed in it are no longer contagious.
Any prison where the COVID-19 cases exceed one half of a percent of the prison population will also have visitation put on hold until their infection rate comes down, according to the Department of Corrections.
The prison system did not offer a timeline for when it would open up to volunteers and attorneys for in-person visits. A lot of programs and educational classes that volunteers run in the prison have been on hiatus for the last year due to COVID-19.
Lawyers who would typically meet with their incarcerated clients face-to-face are now conducting those meetings mostly over the phone. At a couple of facilities — Hunt and Dixon Correctional Institute — they are also able to use Zoom to see their clients, but it’s still a challenging environment for a legal consultation, advocates said.
“It’s been difficult to prepare clients for hearings,” said Kerry Meyers, deputy director of the Parole Project, which provides legal help and coaching to longtime inmates appearing before the state’s parole board for release. “You don’t get the same interaction over the phone as you do sitting across from someone.”
Up until this week, Louisiana has one of the most restrictive states when it comes to prison visitation. At the beginning of March, it was one of only eight states that still completely prohibited visitors, according to The Marshall Project.
Louisiana also sticks out for prioritizing family visits over attorney visits. It is one of the only states to continue to restrict attorneys from seeing their incarcerated clients. In 30 other states, attorneys are allowed to visit inmates in person, even as “normal visitation” continues to be shut down, according to The Marshall Project.
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