With infection rates soaring and Louisiana one of the worst affected states in the country, those in power are now making difficult, controversial decisions to battle the pandemic’s resurgence within an already strained and much-criticized prison system. Better choices, or at least additional options, could arguably have been on the table at one time... were lawmakers not so keen on continuing to funnel millions of dollars into its ongoing panopticon experiment here in New Orleans.
Instead, less than two months after the state spent $70 million on the installation of additional surveillance cameras around its largest city, Louisiana’s notorious state penitentiary says it has been forced to (once again) reopen its infamously brutal Camp J facility — a 400-unit complex with rooms amounting to little more than modern dungeons — in order to house its prisoners testing positive for COVID-19. Or, at least, those prisoners who admit to feeling sick or are identified by correctional employees.
“From our conversations, we also heard that incarcerated people with COVID-like symptoms hid those symptoms instead of reporting them, for fear of transfer to Camp J,” reads part of a recent open letter from the Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition addressed to the state’s sheriff’s association executive director, Michael Ranatza. The funds are there, though: Louisiana has $700 million in federal aid specifically set aside for prisons to tackle COVID-19. The state just isn’t utilizing it. Priorities, right?
A long history of being horrible — You do not want to go to Angola. Louisiana’s state prison has resided in the tiny town along the Mississippi River since 1901, on property that once was a slave plantation. It’s called Angola because that’s where most of those first slaves originated, and not much has changed since.
There’s not enough space here to document Angola State Prison’s long, terrible, racist history — it hosts an annual rodeo in which prisoners can potentially win cash prizes and sell their jail-made artwork, if that tells you anything. But for Camp J to have its own reputation within that prison speaks volumes. At six feet wide, its cells fail American Correctional Association’s standards by a full foot. Prisoners routinely complained of unsanitary and inhumane living conditions. Speaking on its initial closure in 2018, Mercedes Montagnes, executive director at New Orleans’ Promise of Justice Initiative, told a local newspaper, “Camp J... was used to house individuals who were more in need of mental health treatment than disciplinary action.”
Not the first time this pandemic — As mentioned earlier, this isn’t the first time Louisiana has moved to reopen Camp J for inmates in the region who test positive for COVID-19; the governor was sued last year to stop the transfer of sick inmates there not long after the strategy was first implemented. At one time, over 100 prisoners were housed there, many of whom complained of dirty water, mold, and rodent infestations. As cases decreased, Camp J’s usage dwindled, but the recent wave fueled by the delta variant has once again resulted in prison officials reopening the complex.
Solitary confinement is not medical isolation — As many medical and prison experts have reiterated over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting sick populations into solitary confinement is in no way comparable to a prison’s policy of medical isolation. If anything, imposing solitary lockdowns on pandemic populations only makes the situations worse for everyone involved. “Use of these units for medical purposes, while often necessary, can run the risk of corrections officials falling back on regular policies and procedures governing living conditions in these units that harm the health of those exposed,” reads a report from the prison health reform advocacy group, Amend.
Quarantining is necessary, but lacking adequate facilities means countless prisoners have been relocated to rooms designed solely to punish, not rehabilitate. Realistically, there is simply no feasible way to make these conditions tolerable or healthy enough to allow their use for prisoner recuperation. In Louisiana’s Camp J, for example, the Stop Solitary Coalition indicated that many transferred there “often took more than a month to subsequently test negative” for the virus.
Not enough data for local jails — Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough information to understand just how poor Louisiana’s local jail facilities are faring during the pandemic. As the local investigative news outlet, The Lens, explains, “Throughout the pandemic, there has been next to no statewide data on how the pandemic has impacted people those facilities — including the number of infections or deaths.”
Although state prisoner population vaccination rates are around 72 percent (almost double the state’s general population), places like New Orleans Justice Center have much lower ratios. In a response emailed to Input late last week, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office reported 100 percent of its staff at the Orleans Justice Center is vaccinated, while “57 percent of the current active inmate population” has been inoculated. All new inmates are reportedly quarantined for 14 days before being assigned to a housing unit. Additionally, OPSO did not elaborate in its response much further than “we also have detailed instructions and procedures,” for how they deal with prisoners who test positive apart from transferring them to a medical facility “if necessary.”
Vaccines and funds are there — In the end, Louisiana continues to fail its prisoners — and, by extension, its general population — by relying on inadequate and inhumane facilities, not immediately providing vaccinations to new inmates, and spending funds where they aren’t needed. Louisiana doesn’t even have to divert its money away from racist, unreliable, invasive facial recognition technology — it’s got that federal aid it can use.
Stop Solitary Coalition advocated lawmakers take the government up on its offer, to which Department of Corrections spokesperson, Ken Pastorick, told The Lens, “Aside from seeking $700 million in federal funds, what do they recommend?... In addition to DOC medical and security employees, Camp J is staffed with contract medical personnel including nurses. Prior to opening at the beginning of the pandemic, Camp J was cleaned, painted and retrofitted with air conditioning and televisions.”
He then mentioned prison officials are currently offering inmates a $5 canteen credit for vaccinations.