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)
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections has started to allow attorneys back into state prisons for in-person visits with incarcerated clients.
“Our institutions are encouraging Zoom meetings for visits. If necessary, they will allow non-contact visits for attorneys,” wrote Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the prison system, in an email earlier this month.
Attorneys said they were allowed into the prisons to see their clients in person in June after not being able to do so for over a year. The prisons shut down to all outsiders on March 12, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Louisiana. They opened back up to family visitation on a limited basis in March of this year.
The prison system allows incarcerated people who are vaccinated for COVID-19 to have “contact visits” with family members, where they can touch and hug people visiting them. Incarcerated people who have not been vaccinated can only have “non-contact visits” with family through a plastic barrier, Pastorick said. All attorney visits — whether the incarcerated person is vaccinated or not — are taking place through a plastic barrier as well.
With trials and other types of court proceedings shut down or limited during parts of the pandemic, some attorneys said they weren’t concerned about the lack of in-person visits with clients and understood the restrictions that had been put in place.
In an interview this week, Nick Trenticosta, a New Orleans attorney who represents several people in custody in Louisiana, said, “I haven’t been to Angola in over a year and, I’m sorry, I’m not going to Angola. I’m glad they shut it down. It’s too risky. Talk about a place that is an incubator for COVID.”
Other attorneys found the inability to visit in person more challenging.
The Louisiana Parole Project had to continue to represent clients throughout the pandemic because the Louisiana Board of Pardon and Parole has held parole and pardon hearings through most of the health crisis. The Parole Project typically likes to do in-person preparation with clients before they go before the board for potential release, but that wasn’t possible for several months.
The group found working with clients over the phone to be difficult. The Parole Project understood why visitation had been shut down, but the attorneys and other staff are happy to be back to in-person visits. They saw their first client face-to-face in late June, said Kerry Myers, deputy director of the organization.
Nine states never shut down their prison systems to attorney visits, though most prohibited all in-person visitation during at least a portion of the pandemic. Two states — Alabama and Virginia — are still closed to almost all visitation, including visits from family, according to The Marshall Project.
Even if Louisiana’s prison system is allowing attorney visits, not all jails are following suit. St. Tammany Parish Jail is still shut down to in-person attorney visits — possibly due to a recent COVID-19 outbreak, Trenticosta said. Meanwhile, he has been able to see clients in the jail in Plaquemines Parish throughout the pandemic, even when attorney visits in state-run prisons were prohibited.
Attorneys also believe the prison rules could change again soon with the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant. That variant of the virus is thought to be more transmissible. It’s not clear whether it is more lethal yet.
So far, the prison system hasn’t made any adjustments as a result of the Delta variant but could impose restrictions if the Louisiana Department of Health or the Centers for Disease Control make that recommendation, Pastorick said. Gov. John Bel Edwards has the ultimate say in that decision.
Beyond attorneys and family members, Louisiana’s prison system has also started to open back up to volunteers, teachers and instructors for the first time since the pandemic began. Pastorick said most of the prisons’ education, rehabilitation and other enrichment programs are up and running again. The exceptions are classes offered on-site by the Louisiana Community and Technical College system and Tulane University. Those classes are expected to resume in the fall.
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