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Louisiana Considers Early Release Of Some Inmates Among Measures To Reduce COVID-19 Outbreak

Courtesy: The Rouge Collection

Louisiana is taking steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus in state prisons and jails.

On Tuesday, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux announced strict visitation limits at the parish jail, in the latest effort to limit the spread of coronavirus among vulnerable populations. District Attorney Hillar Moore, meanwhile, said his office is looking into ways to reduce the jail population while balancing considerations of public health and public safety.

Gautreaux said one case inside the facility could rapidly spread — the close confines of parish jails make social distancing all but impossible.

Gautreaux said East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is currently at its capacity of 1,600 inmates. Due to overcrowding, an additional 120 inmates in EBRSO custody are awaiting trial in other parish facilities.

Jail employees are routinely monitoring inmates’s temperatures and are quickly transferring anyone who shows symptoms of COVID-19 to an outside health care facility.

Gautreaux said no inmates have been tested for COVID-19 because none have had the symptoms and a negative flu test.

Inmate meetings with attorneys will take place remotely or through a glass partition. The private company that operates paid phone services within the jail is giving each inmate two 10-minute phone calls for free each week.

Gautreaux said his office is considering the use of temporary tents and reopening previously closed wings of the facility to isolate patients in the event of an outbreak.

In addition to limiting visitation, Gautreaux said people will no longer be booked into jail on misdemeanors, except for drunk driving, domestic violence and other violent offenses.

“We are not going to stop enforcing our laws,” Gautreaux said. “The people that need to go to jail will go to jail.”

Prosecutors are working with public defenders and judges to identify inmates who would be good candidates for early release. Moore said his office is looking for medically fragile or older inmates who have been charged with certain nonviolent offenses.

“We’re looking for cases that we can potentially resolve through a dismissal, a plea or some kind of bond reduction,” Moore said, adding that his office has identified “about 70” individuals. He said there is no timetable for when those people might be released.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced the first positive test for COVID-19 in East Baton Rouge Parish Tuesday afternoon.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman created a detailed COVID-19 response protocol for staff at the Orleans Justice Center earlier this month. The document was made public last week.

The protocol outlines procedures for medical screenings of new inmates, proper use and disposal of personal protective equipment, and guidelines for releasing inmates to decrease population size.

As of March 17, 999 people are Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office Custody — fewer than at any point in at least the last 30 years.

On any given day, 15,000 people in Louisiana are incarcerated and awaiting trial in parish jails. Another 15,000 state inmates are serving their sentences in parish facilities scattered across Louisiana.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.