OPEN LETTER TO GOV. BEL EDWARDS ON COVID-19 AND INCARCERATED POPULATIONS
The spread of the incurable and potentially fatal COVID-19 Corona virus in the United States has accelerated since the first cases were reported. The Corona virus poses a substantial threat to Louisianans and cases will continue to grow throughout the state. Currently Governor Bel Edwards and Mayor Cantrell have initiated measures and policies to limit people to people contact in an effort to slow down the spread of this potentially fatal and incurable disease. Despite these efforts, cases in Louisiana are likely to continue to increase.
While Governor Bel Edwards and Mayor Cantrell's administrations have begun policies to limit people to people contact neither have addressed the unique vulnerabilities of incarcerated people. We know that this potentially fatal virus is spread through "respiratory droplets" or fluids that escape from the nose and mouth in the form of a cough, sneeze, or transmitted saliva. We also know large gatherings in closely confined spaces are hotbeds for spreading the disease. These factors make our overpopulated prisons and jails a hotbed for spreading the COVID-19 virus. Even worse, there are currently little to no protocols taking place in our prisons or jails to prevent spread or to control for those leaving facilities from spreading the virus (including staff and those re-entering our community).
The Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, along with other community advocates are calling on the Governor to begin implementing policies to safeguard these uniquely vulnerable populations. In the passing days government officials have said that defeating COVID-19 will take a community effort. We agree. It is important then for all of us to realize that we cannot forget our incarcerated community members. Ignoring the threat that COVID-19 poses to incarcerated populations is ignoring the threat this poses to us all.
JAC encourages those interested in seeing the following recommendations implemented to contact the individuals listed at the bottom of this web page and urge them to comply with the requests referenced in the letter:
Education of the People in Custody: People housed in prisons and jails need to be informed about the virus, symptoms, and measures to minimize spreading it. Education on proper handwashing, coughing into elbows, and social distancing are critical to limit spread. Information about the spread of the virus, risks, prevention, and treatment must be based on the best available science.
Order the Department of Corrections to Lift and Cease Placing Probation and Parole Holds for Violations Where No Immediate and Significant Risk Is Posed to the Community: Hundreds of people are currently in Louisiana prisons for technical violations like not paying fees or unemployment. This will make the community less safe by exposing more people. The DOC should lift all probation and parole holds for technical violations, and cease until further notice. Further, the DOC should not place probation or parole holds, whether for technical or non-technical violations, on people unless there is clear evidence of an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community. Finally, until the pandemic is over, guidance should be issued making clear that a new non-violent arrest should not trigger parole detention.
Precautions Regarding—Including Release of—Medically Fragile and Older Adults and Children from Prison and Secure-Care: High-risk populations for death or serious illness from COVID-19 like older adults, people with chronic illnesses, complex medical needs, compromised immune systems or disabilities, and pregnant women should be provided additional precautions to prevent illness. This should include releasing them from prison where possible. This reduces the need to provide healthcare in hospitals when staff will be overwhelmed. Further, the Governor’s office should make all efforts to release detained children to their families unless there is clear evidence of an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community.
Family Notification: Systems and facilities should adopt procedures that provide for regular, accurate, and timely updates about the health of individuals diagnosed with COVID-19, with the consent of the affected individuals and consistent with HIPAA requirements.
Access to Communication: Every effort to protect and preserve incarcerated people’s ability to communicate with their friends and family outside of the facilities should be made. Fees for phone and videoconference calls should be waived if there are limits to in-person visitation. This will maintain community contacts.
Access to Legal Counsel: Incarcerated people should have free, confidential, timely access to legal counsel and law libraries. This includes in-person visitation and ample videoconference and telephone communications. Further, facilities must ensure that detained and incarcerated people can meaningfully contribute to their legal cases.
Avoid Lockdowns: Any system or facility-wide lock-down or interruptions in regular activities, such as exercise or visits and phone calls with families or attorneys, should be based solely on the best science available and should be as limited as possible in scope and duration. Unneeded lockdowns and solitary confinement expose individuals to significant trauma while doing nothing to decrease the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Making matters worse, when on lock down or held in solitary confinement people may not be able to alert staff if they are experiencing symptoms.
Reduce unnecessary parole and probation meetings: People deemed “low risk” should not be required traveling to, from, and waiting in crowded lobbies for parole or probation officer meetings. Rather those longer needing supervision should be discharged. As many people as possible should be allowed to check in by telephone to limit exposure.
In these uncertain times we cannot forget ANY community members' health safety. In the letter below, we ask Governor Bel Edwards to remember his promise to protect the health and safety of all Louisianans. Please contact the individuals below to encourage them to keep all Louisianans safe and to comply with these public health recommendations:
Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Louisiana Supreme Court
James L. Le Blanc, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
Dr. James Beuche, Deputy Secretary, Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice
Sheryl Ranatza, Chair, Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole
Steve Russo, Acting Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health
Matthew Block, Executive Counsel to the Governor
Jonathan Vining, DOC General Counsel
Leslie Ricard Chambers, Esq., Criminal Justice Policy Advisor
Michael Ranatza, Executive Director, Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association