As the coronavirus rips through jails and prisons across the country and pressure mounts on corrections departments to stave off disaster, federal, state, and local officials have begun to release some incarcerated people in an effort to reduce prison density and slow the spread of the virus. But in Louisiana, which has both the highest incarceration rate in the country and one of the worst virus outbreaks, officials are bucking the trend. Rather than release people, they plan to isolate those who test positive for the virus in two maximum-security state facilities — a plan that critics said amounts to creating death camps.
“The DOC plan to transfer people from across the state to Camp J — where there is no medical care, no hospitals, no access to lawyers — will be the moral stain on our country,” said Ben Cohen, of counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative. He’s been doing capital defense and civil rights work in New Orleans for 23 years, including several cases following Hurricane Katrina. “It is like the Japanese internment camps, but with body bags. We are literally watching the S.S. St. Louis being sent back to Germany.”
Under the plan, local jails and state prisons without the equipment necessary to treat Covid-19 patients can send them to one of two facilities: the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola after the plantation that once operated there, or the Allen Correctional Center. The plan, which also applies to people held in pretrial detention, was met with a barrage of questions and criticism. Last week, the Promise of Justice Initiative and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent state officials from transferring Covid-19 patients to Angola. On Thursday, a federal judge denied the request. A federal judge in February declared parts of the prison’s medical care system unconstitutional, and is set to rule in the coming days in an ongoing class-action suit filed in 2015 by people incarcerated at the facility against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
“If you were lacking to start with, this crisis won’t make it easier, it will make it more challenging,” said Norris Henderson, who spent 27 years wrongfully incarcerated at Angola and now runs Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE, a New Orleans-based group of formerly incarcerated activists. “There is no way in any prison environment to have the social distancing that folks are calling for, and this is why there’s this national call across the country to start moving people out of these types of environments.”
Louisiana released data on Monday showing that black people account for 70 percent of all the state’s coronavirus deaths. Black people make up 32 percent of the state’s population, while 66 percent of people incarcerated in the state are black.
On March 28, Louisiana became the first state to record the death of an incarcerated person from Covid-19. Patrick Jones, who was 49 and serving a 27-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, died at FCI Oakdale, a federal prison that has since recorded four more Covid-19-related deaths.
There are more than 50,000 people incarcerated across about 100 detention facilities in Louisiana. But attorneys and advocates have struggled to get information from corrections officials and fear the number of positive cases is far higher than reported. The outbreak at Oakdale, they say, should serve as a warning of what’s likely coming to Louisiana state prisons and local jails.
To date, Louisiana has 14,867 positive coronavirus cases, one of 13 states with more than 5,000 reported cases.
At least 28 people incarcerated in state facilities across Louisiana and 22 corrections staff have tested positive for the virus. According to local news reports, Department officials said they identified “several hundred” beds for possible coronavirus patients between Angola and Allen. But advocates say that’s not enough, as they expect cases among people in prisons to continue growing rapidly. A department spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The bulk of people transferred from jails will be pretrial detainees, meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime, said Rev. Alexis Anderson, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “The minute they are moved, [they] will lose most of their constitutional rights.” She said the state has the capacity to move people to medical facilities and that it was concerning that no medical experts had been consulted on the plan, which was designed by the Sheriffs’ Association and submitted to the Department of Corrections. The Louisiana Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
“There’s no reason to believe that the experience of Oakdale is going to be any different than Rayburn or any other prison,” said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of VOTE, referring to the state facility with the most reported cases so far. “We know that the governor isn’t just trying to let everybody die. But what we do want is transparency. And we want to see public health officials overseeing this crisis.”
The situation at Rayburn Correctional Center, a men’s prison in the southeastern part of the state, has raised particular concern after 17 men held there were confirmed to have contracted the virus. In emails to his attorney, Christopher Marlowe, a diabetic man incarcerated at Rayburn who has filed a petition for emergency release, described a frightening situation. Marlowe wrote that at least two dorms — and more than 300 people — had been put in quarantine after people started reporting symptoms, but noted that some people had since been shuffled to different dorms.
“We don’t have free access to bleach or cleaning agents. We don’t have anything to wipe the phones with, no alcohol pads or anything,” he wrote last week. “There are no paper towels to dry hands. They issue us one bar of soap every two weeks to bathe and wash hands with. We live 20-30” apart in our beds.”
“We eat at tables, 4 to a table, in a cafeteria that has now proven to have had covid-positive people working until 3 days ago, but the others that worked with him are still there.”
“I just hope I don’t get it,” Marlowe added in a subsequent email. “Cell blocks are virtual death sentences for diabetics.”
So far, only a handful of people who have tested positive for the virus have been transferred to Angola, according to advocates monitoring the state response to the crisis. After an uproar when the proposal to isolate sick people there was first announced, officials backtracked and called the proposal a “contingency plan.”
There are at least two known cases of people who tested positive for Covid-19 and were transferred to hospitals, and are now under consideration for transfer to either Angola or Allen.
Last week, a group of advocates met with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state officials to seek clarifications about their plans to handle a surge of cases in the state’s prisons. Henderson, of VOTE, said that advocates continued to plead with officials to release those most at risk, but also demanded guarantees that no incarcerated people would work in prison units dedicated to Covid-19 patients.
“They said that no incarcerated folks would be working in or around that particular unit, that the unit would be staffed by nurses and folks from probation and parole and that they will have PPE,” said Henderson, referring to personal protective equipment. “We are pressing to have these folks released. But in the interim, this is one of the things that’s happening, they’re trying to triage.”
So far, seven staff members and five inmates have tested positive for Covid-19 at Angola. Critics have warned that sending sick people to the prison, which already has an aging population and houses many with preexisting conditions, could be disastrous. Some have asked why a facility that’s historically housed an elderly and chronically ill population doesn’t have an emergency plan for contagious diseases. “This was already a dangerously ill population,” said Anderson, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, adding that many people at Angola are poor or have challenges with substance abuse or mental illness.
Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the country, is infamous for its poor conditions, including medical neglect. The facility also houses the state execution chamber and men’s death row. In their 2015 class-action lawsuit, individuals incarcerated at the prison accused officials of neglecting their medical needs, as well as violating the rights of individuals with disabilities. To date, the state has done little to reassure the public that Angola’s chronic problems would be fixed on time for the prison to host Covid-19 patients. “One of the most frightening pieces of this is, of course, Angola is currently in litigation for its subpar health care,” said Anderson.
In the new motion seeking to stop the state from transferring sick inmates to Angola, plaintiffs argued that the state was “about to embark on a course of action that will likely result in the death of dozens if not hundreds of Class members.” The filers cited a supplemental declaration from an expert in medical care at correctional facilities, Dr. Michael Puisis, who said Angola has “no place to treat an ill person with Covid-19 except in a general housing unit or on the infirmary, both of which would expose other patients to infection.” Even if people could be somehow isolated and treated simultaneously, the filers wrote, “inappropriate policy on staff who may have contracted Covid-19” would make transmissions between staff and the general population at Angola “inevitable.”
The plan to move people to Angola was haphazard and poorly thought through, without consultation from the state’s department of health or medical experts, critics noted. “It’s only one thing to say, we’re going to separate the sick from the not sick,” said Reilly, of VOTE. “What’s your protocol for the guards? Are you separating them? Are you quarantining the guards? It’s not a contained unit if there are people going in and out of there. If that’s part of your plan, let us know.”
“This is not a medical facility. This is a dungeon that has had some beds and a mop thrown into it.”
Under the state’s plan, people sent to Angola will be housed in Camp J, a unit which was shut down in 2018 after operating for more than 40 years because of inhumane treatment of prisoners, crumbling infrastructure, and poor ventilation. At its peak, the unit housed 400 people in solitary cells.
“This is not a medical facility,” Anderson said. “This is a dungeon that has had some beds and a mop thrown into it.”
“It was shut down because it was horrific,” Cohen said. “When I would visit my clients in Camp J, they would beg to get released because the conditions were so terrible.”
“It’s basically not suitable for living,” said Reilly. “People think of Camp J and they think negatively. They basically think, you’re going to send me there to die.”
So far, state officials have done little to assuage those fears.
“Anyone who tells you that there’s a plan to care for people at Camp J is misrepresenting both the history of Camp J and the circumstances. I don’t know whether they’re lying to themselves or lying to you,” Cohen said, noting his organization’s ongoing lawsuit over medical care at the facility predating the spread of coronavirus. “The Department of Corrections has essentially had a policy of reducing incarceration by allowing people to die for years at Angola,” he said.
“There are no ventilators at all in Angola, nor will there ever be. And there’s no ventilators in West Louisiana Parish,” Anderson said. “We will literally be moving people from places where there is competent health care, adequate space available for isolating people within the community.”
In addition to the pending class-action suit, the state Supreme Court is expected any day to deliver an opinion in another case with potential implications for thousands of people housed at Angola, Cohen said. He is counsel for Ramos v. Louisiana, which deals with the question of whether a unanimous jury should be required for conviction at the state level, as it is in federal cases. If the court rules in favor of Ramos, it would immediately apply directly to 100 people, Cohen said, noting the possibilities for application to people at Angola. “What’s terrifying for me is that they’re gonna die before we have a chance to vindicate their claims.”
Update: April 7, 2020
After publication, Department of Corrections spokesperson Ken Pastorick called The Intercept and sent a statement responding to previous questions. Pastorick confirmed that Angola has no ventilators and is relying on existing plans to transfer people to local hospitals who need medical care beyond what corrections staff can provide. Asked if those medical facilities have ventilators, Pastorick said he did not know.
“Camp J is intended only to serve as an isolation facility for offenders who have tested positive but are not displaying serious symptoms and who are not in medical distress,” Pastorick said in a statement. “Severe cases will not be housed at Camp J. If an offender housed at Camp J begins to exhibit severe symptoms, he will be transported to an outside hospital.”
Pastorick declined to comment on comments from advocates that the plan could create death camps. Asked about the ability of corrections staff to provide medical care, and the availability of medical equipment, Pastorick said, “We have top notch staff.” He emphasized that staff and people housed at Camp J will not come into contact with anyone else at Angola.