OPPRC, SPLC, ACLU and Residents Call for More Decarceration As Orleans Parish Jail Workers Test Positive

The Criminal District Court of Orleans Parish has ordered the release of people being held on a pre-trial basis for misdemeanor or other low-level offenses from the city jail on Wednesday, after the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) sent more than 300 emails to the inboxes of each Criminal District Court Judge and other city officials. The letter was also signed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the ACLU of Louisiana, and dozens of other organizations.

Unfortunately, this action may have come too late to stop the spread of COVID-19 throughout the system. On Wednesday, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office confirmed that four Orleans Parish Jail health care workers and five Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office employees have tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, there are three inmates at the Orleans Justice Center waiting for COVID-19 test results, with at least four more waiting to be tested. At the Orleans Parish Prison, one medical staffer tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.

In an en banc order, Deputy Chief Judge Robin Pittman ordered the release of people with the following violations with the exclusion of violations related to domestic violence and weapons charges:

  • Arrests for failure to appear on probation status
  • Misdemeanor pretrials
  • Contempt of court
  • Defendants remanded for positive drug tests with bond in effect

In addition to the OPPRC’s actions, the Orleans Public Defender’s Office filed a petition asking judge release inmates from the jail who meet certain conditions, including high-risk factors like age and underlying health conditions, as well as those held on misdemeanor charges, nonviolent and non-sexual felony charges, those on probation or parole detainers, and those who are within 30 days of their release date.

“National and local and health experts agree that no detention facility can protect against an outbreak of COVID-19 that will quickly overwhelm the capacity of both the jail and the city’s medical infrastructure,” states the petition. “The already predicted shortage of hospital beds and (ventilators) at local hospitals will be dramatically exacerbated if COVID-19 is allowed to spread throughout the Orleans Justice Center.”

OPPRC is calling on city officials to step in and do more. “A mere 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, when the city left people for dead inside OPP as the waters rose, our leaders are still hesitating to act,” said OPPRC Executive Director Sade Dumas. “OPP is a public health catastrophe waiting to happen. While it is heartening that the judges recognize the need to lower the jail population during this emergency, this order does not go far enough. We need to release all people who are being held pre-trial who are at high risk to COVID-19 as defined by the CDC, in addition to others who are being held for low-level, nonviolent, or probationary offenses.”

Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans specializing in politics and social justice issues. In 2019, she was given the title of “Most Fearless” by The Bayou Brief. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_

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