Open Letter

Alternatives to Solitary and Camp J During COVID-19

April 22, 2020

 

James L. Le Blanc, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections

james.leblanc@la.gov & JMLeBlanc@corrections.state.la.us

 

Natalie LaBorde, Executive Counsel, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections

NatalieLaborde@corrections.state.la.us

 

Jonathan Vining, DOC General Counsel

jvining@corrections.state.la.us

 

Courtney N. Phillips, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health

Courtney.Phillips@la.gov

 

Matthew Block, Executive Counsel to the Governor

Matthew.Block@la.gov

 

Tina Vanichchagorn, Special Counsel to the Governor

Tina.Vanichchagorn@la.gov

 

Leslie Ricard Chambers, Esq., Criminal Justice Policy Advisor

Leslie.Chambers@la.gov

 

RE: Alternatives to Solitary and Camp J During COVID-19.

 

Dear Office of the Governor and the Departments of Public Safety & Corrections and Health:

 

Thank you for all you are doing to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. We know you have been working around the clock and we are sincerely grateful for your leadership and dedication to the people of Louisiana. We understand that it feels frustrating to hear critiques from advocates about the treatment of prisoners, but we persist only because we hear the pain and confusion from our clients, their families, and our communities on an hourly basis. Even still, we are committed to working with you to facilitate creative solutions to end this crisis.

 

The Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition (LSSC) writes both because we remain concerned about the plan to transfer and house prisoners and detainees at Camp J and the use of lockdown across facilities as the primary methods for containing the spread of COVID-19. LSSC was fully invested in working with DOC toward the implementation of the Vera report[1] and engaging with you in preparation for the 2020 legislative session. We believed trust was built between us around the issue of solitary and were consequently devastated to learn of the re-opening of Camp J. The closure of Camp J communicated to the currently and formerly incarcerated people of Louisiana - in a way that only actions, not mere words, can do - that the DOC was committed to putting the past behind us and moving forward to a future where alternatives to segregation were possible. Additionally, multiple state and local facilities are using extended lockdown, including where large numbers of people close to their release date are housed, which surprises us because we appreciated the DOC’s pre-COVID responsiveness in curtailing the use of lockdown in jails.

 

Louisiana is only as healthy as our most vulnerable people. Doctors and Professors from Tulane and Louisiana State University,[2] clinicians and medical students,[3] and public health experts[4] have reiterated the national guidance from the CDC about preventing the spread of this virus through social distancing and sanitation methods.[5] All advise that a drastic reduction of incarcerated populations is required to achieve the CDC’s recommendations. Doctors and health officials have also described the differences between medical isolation and solitary and noted that the use of punitive methods for those with COVID-19 or its symptoms may exacerbate the spread of the virus.[6] Incarcerated people may be dissuaded from reporting symptoms of the virus if they believe the response is transfer to Camp J or lockdown of their unit if they admit they are feeling ill. Lockdown and solitary also decrease the interaction of staff with prisoners, allowing symptoms to accelerate to dangerous levels before the facility can take proper precautions. As stated best by several corrections officials in a recent webinar, there is no public safety without public health.[7] For these reasons, we ask that you refrain from the use of lockdown or solitary - including the use of Camp J -  to achieve medical isolation.

 

We agree with the health experts and medical professionals referenced above that the best method for achieving proper social distancing and sanitation - and thus obviate the need for the use of lockdown and solitary - is to release significantly larger numbers of people from prisons and jails. These requests have already been communicated to your offices by the advocacy community,[8] and do not require reiteration here. We will note that this is a bipartisan issue, with Americans for Prosperity calling for strategic reductions in jail and prison populations,[9] Right on Crime encouraging steering clear of solitary confinement,[10] and recent polls demonstrating bipartisan support with 63% of voters supporting the release of people from jails and prisons to stop the spread of COVID-19 and 72% supporting clemency for elderly, incarcerated people.[11]

 

There is still an opportunity to slow the spread of the virus, “flatten the curve,” and prevent unnecessary deaths. The quickest and least expensive way Louisiana can avoid a catastrophe is to access immediately available federal funding to facilitate the individual assessment, release, supervision, electronic monitoring, and/or home confinement options for prisoners. The Bureau of Justice Assistance has announced formula grants that can be drawn down during this emergency to support a broad array of justice system responses to COVID-19.[12] Louisiana is allocated $9.7 million for this purpose and cities, townships, and parishes can apply for an additional $5 million in funding (allocations ranging in size from $33,000 to $1 million depending on population). Applications are due by May 29th. Due to Louisiana’s partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts on justice reinvestment, staff from that organization are available to assist in applying for the funds.[13] 

 

In the event that the DOC or a given jail cannot meet CDC guidelines without the use of solitary or lockdown, is unable to supervise prisoners at home through federal funding opportunities, and cannot utilize temporary release or furlough, we ask that you relocate prisoners to a building where social distancing and compliance with public health guidelines is possible. First and foremost, we encourage coordination with the Medical Monitoring Station in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Station in development in Baton Rouge.[14] Additionally, under a state of emergency, the Governor can transition the management of local state-owned facilities to the temporary authority of the state, engage the Louisiana National Guard to maintain site control and provide medical services, and utilize the state-based federal funding to employ medical professionals to care for individuals with COVID.[15] These actions are not unprecedented.[16] Not too long ago, FEMA used the publicly-financed Zephyr Stadium as a rescue location for Hurricane Katrina survivors.[17] A review of the 5 parishes identified as “Tier I” by justice reinvestment reveals available locations with sufficient amenities to ensure hygienic and safe living conditions for individuals needing treatment or quarantine.[18] The majority of these facilities are local convention centers or recreation or community centers.

 

As the most incarcerated state in the world, Louisiana will not flatten the curve without serious attention to our incarcerated populations. We urge you to close Camp J, refrain from the use of lockdown, release more people, and transfer people who are sick to Medical Monitoring Stations and hospitals. The hot days of summer are coming and the conditions at Camp J will only worsen. Indeed, the lack of central air in many Louisiana prisons and jails could spell disaster for the further spread of COVID-19 if sufficient measures are not immediately taken to adhere to CDC guidelines for social distancing and sanitation.

 

Another vision of how Louisiana weathers this crisis is possible. We are not permanently on the path of New York, Chicago, or Ohio.[19] We have time to change course, but it is very little time. The LSSC is committed to navigating this crisis with you and providing you with technical or other assistance to reduce prison populations. Whether it be identifying and eliminating barriers to release like municipal detainers, out-of-parish warrants, or probation/parole holds and technical violations; researching additional publicly financed projects and state-owned properties near prisons for establishing Medical Monitoring Stations; applying for federal funding; or continuing to convince the public of the need to address the impending crisis in our prisons and jails in order to flatten the curve, we stand ready to assist you and ensure that every parish in Louisiana navigates the spread of this virus with minimal community impact.

 

Signed,

 

Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition

www.lastopsolitary.org

 

Cc:

 

Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Louisiana Supreme Court

bjohnson@lasc.org

 

Kenn Barnes, Special Counsel - Criminal Justice, Louisiana Supreme Court

KBarnes@lasc.org

 

E. Dustin Bickham, Interim Deputy Secretary, Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice

Dusty.Bickham@la.gov

 

Sheryl Ranatza, Chair, Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole

paroleboard@corrections.state.la.us

 

Michael Ranatza, Executive Director, Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association

michael@lsa.org

OPEN LETTER TO GOV. BELL 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. 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. 

 

The Louisiana Stop Solitary Confinement Coalition, along with other community advocates, are calling on the Governor to begin implementing policies to safeguard these uniquely vulnerable populations. In particular those being held in lockdown. In a March 16 letter to the Governor, #18 asks that the state "Consider avoiding lockdowns although corrections staff may be tempted to reflexively cut off visitation and increase the use of solitary confinement to control the spread of COVID-19, 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 to ensure the health and safety of individuals in custody”. Recently, all visits have been suspended at Louisiana prisons as advocates warn of coronavirus spreading behind bars. In San Quentin getting the flu has landed inmates in solitary confinement.  Things like hand sanitizer can be considered contraband in some cases. It is not a matter of if but when the coronavirus will enter prisons and jails, according to health experts. The consequences of that eventuality could be devastating.   

 “Prolonged​ lockdowns can inflict substantial, serious mental harm on incarcerated populations, exacerbating feelings of stress and anxiety amongst those in custody who are deprived of regular contact with their friends and family. International experts consider prolonged solitary confinement to be torture".  Solitary confinement is torture and should be prohibited. Prolonged solitary confinement causes significant mental harm and places people at risk of even more devastating future harm. These harms may be permanent and persist even after one is released from solitary confinement. 

 

“Finally, when locked down or held in solitary confinement, people may not be able to alert staff promptly if they experience symptoms of COVID-19, increasing the risk of contagion".  In the passing days government officials have said that defeating COVID-19 will take a community effort. We agree. It is important for all of us to realize that we cannot forget our incarcerated community members on lockdown. Ignoring the threat that COVID-19 poses to incarcerated populations is ignoring the threat this poses to us all. The Justice Collaborative posted a Fact Sheet on Practices to avoid in jail as we deal with COVID-19. 

 

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.

Freed Prisoner Albert Woodfox on Transformation & Hope After Four Decades in Solitary Confinement.

The Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition is supported by a grant from the national Unlock the Box Campaign.

504-322-4050 ext 203

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