How Louisiana prisons have handled COVID-19: 9 Things to Know

Half of the state’s prison population is in local jails — and the state has no idea how it fared.

By: - June 29, 2021 6:00 am
Angola dormitory

In this file photo from July 2014, a group gets a tour of a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. (Jarvis DeBerry)

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections has no information on whether nearly half the state’s prison population was screened for COVID-19 or has been offered a COVID-19 vaccine yet, according to a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor released Monday. 

Louisiana houses 46 percent of the people it imprisons — 13,051 people — with sheriffs in local jails, but the prison system has not collected data about what COVID-19 prevention methods, vaccination plans or even COVID-19 deaths occurred in those facilities, according to the audit. 

The legislative auditor looked at many aspects of the prison system’s’ response to COVID-19 from March 2020 through June 2021. The auditor’s staff said it faced restrictions in doing its investigation. It wasn’t able to interview prisoners and staff in person at prisons because of the pandemic. Instead, it had to rely on advocacy groups for incarcerated people to relay what they had heard from people in prison. They also interviewed prison management remotely. 

Here are some highlights of the audit

Sheriffs didn’t share data about their own COVID-19 prevention efforts

Not only did the prison system not get information about sheriffs’ COVID-19 plans, the governor’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force wasn’t able to get COVID-19 information from the sheriffs either. The task force asked all 64 sheriffs about their COVID-19 protocol, but only six responded, according to the audit.

This means there was no good statewide grasp on how incarcerated people being held outside of state prisons were treated during the pandemic.

Louisiana is unusual because it houses almost half of its incarcerated population in approximately 100 local facilities run by sheriffs. Other states keep incarcerated people in state custody in state facilities.

“It is important for DOC to ensure that state prisoners housed locally receive the same level of COVID-19 precautions as those housed in state facilities, especially since half of state prisoners are housed there,” the audit reads.

The prison system has agreed to start requiring all the sheriffs that house people incarcerated by the state to report how many of those people have tested positive for COVID-19, are waiting on COVID-19 tests or have been vaccinated. The reporting requirements will start July 1.

The prison system is also in talks with the National Sheriffs Association and the Centers for Disease Control to develop a pilot project that would beef up the reporting on COVID-19 issues in jails. 

People in state prisons had a higher vaccination than the rest of Louisiana. 

Amongst eligible people incarcerated in state prisons, about 72 percent had received at least one vaccine shot by May 4. About 36 percent of incarcerated people in state prisons were fully vaccinated at that point. 

That was ahead of the vaccination rate in the state at the time. Just 32 percent of Louisiana residents had initiated the vaccine series, and 26 percent were completely vaccinated on that day, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. But unlike in the prison system, a number of people — namely children — weren’t eligible to receive the vaccine. The prison system is almost entirely adults, all of whom should have been eligible.

Louisiana’s prisons were also offering an incentive — a $5 canteen credit — to incarcerated people who agreed to get vaccinated. At the time, Louisiana had no incentive programs for the general public to encourage vaccination.

The vaccine rate also doesn’t take into account the 46 percent of the prison population housed in local sheriffs’ jails — where the vaccination rate is unknown.

Most people in state prison didn’t receive a COVID-19 test during the pandemic’s first nine months

Between March and November of 2020, 57 percent of incarcerated people in state facilities were never tested for COVID-19, though people in incarcerated settings are at higher risk for catching the virus because of their communal living arrangements. 

In some prisons, there was no widespread testing until several months into the pandemic. Raymond LaBorde Correctional Center didn’t do testing of people who didn’t appear to be sick until September of 2020, and Elayn Hunt Correctional Center had no such testing until November of 2020, according to the audit. This was around the same time that university athletes — for example — were getting tested more than once per week. 

The high rate of positive COVID-19 tests might mean prisons weren’t testing enough

Nearly 40 percent of incarcerated people screened for COVID-19 in state prisons returned a positive test from March of 2020 to January of 2021. The high percentage means that the prison system was not doing enough mass testing of the incarcerated population, several experts said last summer.

“If you have 40 percent positive testing, you are not doing anywhere near enough testing,” said Chris Beyrer, a public health expert and human rights specialist at Johns Hopkins University, in July of 2020.

Beyrer said last year that such a high positivity rate likely meant the prison system was mostly testing people who exhibited symptoms and not people who might have had COVID-19 but did not know they were infected. 

Lockdown limited educational opportunities– and may keep people incarcerated longer

Many incarcerated people earn credit toward an earlier release from prison by enrolling in rehabilitation programs and taking educational classes, but many of those were shut down for several months starting in April of 2020. Some of them haven’t restartedl.

The number of people who completed educational programs dropped by almost half from the second half of 2019 to the first half of 2020, when the pandemic arrived, according to the audit. Some rehabilitation and therapeutic programs are being offered online — in an effort to keep people progressing — but the options are limited. 

Attorneys and volunteers still haven’t been let back into prisons yet 

Some of the education, therapeutic and faith-based programs may not have ramped back up yet because the prison system hasn’t let outside volunteers return to its facilities yet. The Department of Public Safety and Corrections is working on bringing back a “limited number of volunteers” for faith-based programming, as well as ramping up its educational and vocational programs, according to the audit.

Attorneys also haven’t been able to visit their clients in person in over a year, according to the audit. 

The prison system struggled with video visitation

During its shutdown, the prison system attempted to provide alternatives to visits — including two free phone calls for incarcerated people each week — but it also ran into problems. The new video visitation option encountered technical difficulties and wasn’t always available to prisoners, according to the audit. The prison system also struggled with offering secure communication for attorneys and their incarcerated clients. These issues have largely resolved themselves over the last several months but were frustrating for incarcerated families during the first few months of the pandemic. 

Probation and parole officers had to take over prison guard duties 

The pandemic exacerbated staffing problems Louisiana’s prison system had already been experiencing — so much so that the prison system had to use probation and parole officers to oversee sick patients in COVID-19 wards and to cover some night shifts at the state’s women’s prison.

From March to December 2020, the prison system saw paid leave from its correctional staff increase 22 percent over the previous year.

The prisons system didn’t monitor prisons for COVID-19 enforcement 

Louisiana prison officials didn’t monitor their own facilities to see if they were complying with the required COVID-19 prevention measures. The auditor was upset that individual prisons weren’t obligated to log their cleaning or report their progress to the prison system’s main office. The auditor suggested the prison headquarters mandate COVID-19 records be kept in the future and that the main office staff review security footage from prisons to make sure staff is complying with the rules.

The auditor heard from advocates for incarcerated people that, in some facilities, staff wasn’t required to wear masks and incarcerated people weren’t given adequate cleaning supplies. They also heard incarcerated people were disciplined for refusing to work near other people who appeared to be infected with COVID-19. It was difficult for the auditor to verify this information because individual prisons were not required to keep records.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.