The panel will not be dissolved until Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) lifts the current emergency declaration. Its work is supposed to resume “if there is an unexpected uptick in the number of [COVID-19] cases within our prison population,” according to DOC spokesperson Ken Pastorick.
But as of December 4, 2020 — six months after it was suspended — the COVID-19 Furlough Review Panel had not returned to work. Meanwhile the pandemic had not abated in Louisiana but, in fact, its COVID-19 death rate had climbed above that in almost all other states.
The panel was created in April 2020 by DOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, who promised it would “help further our efforts to protect staff and inmates” from the novel coronavirus that causes the disease.
The panel was charged with examining 1,100 cases from DOC’s approximately 30,000 prisoners — about 3.4 percent — for possible early release. In the state with country’s highest per capita rate of incarceration as well as one of its highest per capita rates of death to COVID-19, the obvious purpose was to create space for enhanced social distancing in the face of the pandemic.
The majority of prisoners considered were housed in parish jails, with the rest in state prisons. Prisoners convicted of sex offenses or violent crimes were excluded, and all candidates had to be within six months of their release date.
Other criteria were applied but not enumerated for the public. Labeling the panel’s deliberations “internal administrative reviews,” DOC also exempted its work from Louisiana’s open meeting statutes, allowing it to operate without transparency.
The effectiveness of the panel in achieving its stated mission was negligible. It examined only 600 of the 1,100 eligible prisoners before its suspension. Of those, it recommended early release for just 100. Factors like outstanding warrants, unacceptable housing plans and refusal to accept ankle monitors with house arrest requirements further pared the number down to 63, or 5.7 percent of the original candidates — and just 0.2 percent of DOC’s total prisoner population.
The panel remains sidelined even as DOC maintains a pandemic-related ban on family prisoner visitation. In November 2020, as the number of new COVID-19 infections surged in the state, plans were scuttled to relax the ban for the Thanksgiving holiday.
A glance at DOC statistics as of December 4, showed that only about 25 percent — 7,155 — of the state’s prisoners had been tested for COVID-19. A total of 2,588 prisoners had received positive results. Of those, 12 remained symptomatic and another 77 had not yet developed symptoms. There had been 31 prisoner deaths to the disease, all occurring in prisoners with underlying medical conditions.
Although Gov. Edwards has urged DOC to test all prisoners for COVID-19, comprehensive testing had been done only at two women’s prisons.
According to a database maintained by The New York Times, Louisiana was undergoing a third surge in new COVID-19 infections on December 4, pushing the state’s total above 247,000. It had lost 6,548 residents to the disease, a per capita death rate higher than that of all but four other states.
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