“Not in my backyard!”
That’s how those of us on the frontlines of prison reform advocacy here in Louisiana are interpreting a recent plan released by the state on how the Department of Corrections is confronting the crisis surrounding COVID-19 and the treatment of human beings currently incarcerated in state & local correctional facilities. In a state that ranks number one in mass incarceration globally, state corrections officials recently presented their so-called “plan” to address coronavirus outbreaks in Louisiana correctional facilities that effectively treats those incarcerated during the pandemic – regardless of their offense or status – as unfortunate casualties of a system that never viewed them as worth saving in the first place. It just happens to be more apparent during a deadly pandemic.
Under the “plan” – which is a by-product of an insular partnership between the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association – those incarcerated in Louisiana correctional facilities (state or local) who find themselves unfortunate enough to test positive for the coronavirus will be transferred out of their current holding facility to the most notorious maximum security prison in the country, Angola State Penitentiary, where they will be housed in the most notorious facility on the Angola plantation, Camp J. This even includes pre-trial detainees who haven’t had their day in court. (By the way, I strongly encourage anyone unfamiliar with the history of either Angola State Penitentiary or its Camp J facility to read “Solitary” by Albert Woodfox).
For context, Angola – currently being sued for providing subpar healthcare to those in its custody – is located in a rural, isolated location in Louisiana and, to date, has no ventilators and no infectious disease specialists on site. The coronavirus “plan” doesn’t address the myriad of constitutional, moral, and logistical issues that immediately become apparent upon review. It doesn’t incorporate special measures for those with other underlying health conditions or are immunocompromised, such as those with cancer, HIV, kidney disease, etc. It doesn’t take into consideration the heightened risk for those working at these facilities and their families. It doesn’t address medical options for patients who take a turn for the worse, doesn’t consider where those who have recovered will be rehoused, and it fails to consider what happens if the projections for the virus spread are just a fraction of the actual reality.
From a public advocacy standpoint, prominent criminal justice reform voices from across the state, such as Professors Angela Bell of Southern University Law Center, Andrea Armstrong of Tulane Law School, and Madalyn K. Wasilczuk of Louisiana State University Law Center, among others, are sounding the alarm regarding the impact of this cruel policy on a variety of potential subgroups such as juveniles, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. Statewide groups such as the Promise of Justice Initiative, Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU of Louisiana, Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, VOTE, among others, are challenging the state’s prison coronavirus plan and trying to instead advance decarceration as a more urgent and prudent measure. National organizations such as The Bail Project and The Advancement Project have also committed to helping rescue as many people as possible during this crisis.
But in the meantime, the real heroes who are fighting for the rights of those being impacted by this draconian approach to public safety in our jails and prisons here in Louisiana are the public defenders. For example, at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, there is literally only one attorney in the facility every single day. While outside of the formal structure of these facilities, lawyers across the state are fighting night and day in an attempt to get as many individuals released as possible, often in partnership with local District Attorneys, the reality is that these efforts are an uphill climb against a system that seemingly prides itself in its inhumane approach to the administration of criminal justice.
Right now, the hard truth is that the state’s “plan” has already started to be implemented by Louisiana correctional facilities and there are already individuals being transferred to the notorious Camp J. The concerns, however, of prison reform advocates like myself isn’t merely theoretical and for those of us here in Louisiana, the issue is both personal and urgent. The first death in the federal prison system was in Oakdale, Louisiana. There have been countless reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons across the state. And the terrifying stories that are emanating from the inside paint a harrowing picture of individuals literally combating a potential death sentence they were never sentenced to or deserved in the first place.
Louisiana is often portrayed as a ruby-red bastion of Christian conservatism. Politicians routinely win elections here, touting their sterling pro-life records and promising to defend the right to life. Well, right to life includes those who are incarcerated. For the overwhelming population in Louisiana jails and prisons, they have not been sentenced to death. But a failure to protect them – as we are collectively protecting ourselves from the same threat – is effectively sentencing all of those incarcerated to, at best, a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with a deadly contagion.
Instead of treating those ensnared in our state’s criminal justice system like secondary citizens, we need to remind the world that we can rise to the occasion and respond to the coronavirus pandemic with clear eyes, data, and a singular focus on public health. Pay attention to what’s happening in Louisiana. How we treat immigrants, pre-trial detainees, and those serving time in our facilities today is merely a precursor for how these policies will spread to a state near you in the future.