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First Prisoners and Staff, Including a Warden, Dead from COVID-19 in Louisiana; Hundreds Infected

Like most prison systems, the Louisiana Department of Corrections (LDOC) has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic in crammed facilities that make for easy transmission of the highly contagious coronavirus. As a consequence, the number of positive tests for the disease within LDOC facilities continues to grow, and it had resulted in at least 10 deaths as PLN went to press.

LDOC reported its first prisoner death on April 18, 2020. The name of the 69-year-old victim was not released, but officials said he had been at the state penitentiary in Angola since 1978, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. The man, who reportedly requested and agreed to a do-not-resuscitate order, died just three days after being transferred to an outside hospital.

Two other LDOC prisoners also died from COVID-19 in April 2020, including a woman at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW), as well as three staff members. Details on the dead prisoners were unavailable from LDOC, but the female prisoner was identified as Dorothy Pierre in a Facebook video posted by other women held at LCIW who are part of a group called Voice of the Experienced (VOTE).

LDOC identified its lost staffers as Raymond Laborde Correctional Center Warden Sandy McCain; Dr. Casey McVea, the prison’s medical director; and an Angola guard, Lt. Timothy Gordon. Their deaths have also altered the LDOC’s objective in response to the virus. As the Times-Picayune reported, “Hundreds of Louisiana inmates and correctional employees have now tested positive for coronavirus, and wardens across the state are entering a new phase of their response: hoping to limit the death toll.”

“It is without doubt that this pandemic will have lasting impacts on our Department,” observed LDPSC Secretary James LaBlanc, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDSPC), of which LDOC is a part.

The fear is that the number of deaths will increase as more positive tests results are returned. LDOC’s website showed on May 12, 2020, that 368 prisoners had tested positive. The majority of those — 232 — were at the hard-hit LCIW.

While the coronavirus is rare in youths in the free world, the frequency of positive tests in Louisiana’s juvenile facilities speaks to the dangers of their close quarters. There are two branches of the Swanson Center for Youth. Between them, 17 juveniles had tested positive.

Officials are moving infected juveniles to the Monroe branch and healthy juveniles to the Columbia branch. The Louisiana Department of Justice, as of April 20, 2020, was reporting that 28 juveniles in its facilities had tested positive for COVID-19.

The lockdowns being imposed on juveniles has made them unruly. About 40 juveniles at the Bridge City Juvenile facility rioted. Juveniles kicked down their doors, a SWAT team swarmed in, kids were pepper sprayed, and a staffer was injured, the Associated Press reported.

VOTE has called on Gov. John Bel Edwards to use clemency to cut the state’s prison population. But in a press conference April 27, Edwards said he didn’t consider clemency an appropriate way to deal with COVID-19.

“That’s not just part of the pandemic response as far as I’m concerned,” the governor said.

Instead Edwards has put together a panel that began meeting on April 17, 2020, in order to review the cases of about 1,200 non-violent prisoners, 25 percent to 30 percent of whom the governor expects will be found eligible for furlough. But LDOC said records of just 289 prisoners had been recommended by the end of the month, with only 58 of those released.

“We’re disappointed that they haven’t been more aggressive in trying to reduce the prison population in the state,” commented Kevin Fitzpatrick, Director of the Office of Justice and Peace at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO).

On May 7, 2020, CCANO hosted a virtual meeting online with representatives from the Louisiana Office of Probation and Parole to address the effects of COVID-19 on criminal justice reform.

“We don’t really know when (the pandemic is) going to end, so people are still in this kind of crisis mode,” observed one panelist, Vanessa Spinazola, Executive Director of the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana.

She added that she would prefer to see state officials get into “vision mode” to plan structural changes that permanently lower the population in prison.

In addition to cases in the state’s prisons and jails, the panel learned that another 100 cases have cropped up in immigrant detention facilities in the state, according to Homero López, Jr., Executive Director and Managing Attorney at Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy. Most are asylum seekers with “no criminal background,” he said.

“This is a choice by the government to detain folks that they don’t have to detain,” López continued, adding that COVID-19 only draws “attention to the fact that we have a system that detains people for no other reason than that they are undocumented in the United States.”