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USA: after Louisiana women's prison flooded in 2016, temporary dorms inundated with coronavirus

In one massive room filled with rows of metal bunk beds about an arm’s length apart, 70 women share three toilets and four sinks. There’s no such thing as social distancing inside the female prison dorms that have become inundated with coronavirus cases.

The high case numbers have prompted Department of Public Safety and Corrections officials to conduct mass testing at the state’s two female prison facilities over the past several weeks. At one, 87% of inmates in one building tested positive for coronavirus. The rate at another was more than 60%. Many cases were asymptomatic.

Meanwhile Louisiana men’s prisons appear to have so far avoided such major outbreaks, though limited testing at those facilities could obscure the scope of the problem. Officials said mass testing has not been conducted among male prisoners because case counts haven’t been high enough. Of course that could change in the future.

Male prisoners who do test positive are often moved to individual cells or into other isolated areas. But those options are less widely available in the women’s facilities, their warden has said.

That’s because much of Louisiana’s female prison population has been housed in more densely packed temporary accommodations since the state’s only prison for women flooded in 2016 and left more than 1,000 inmates displaced.

Women make up just 5% of Louisiana’s 32,000 state prisoners: about 1,600 statewide. Hundreds of displaced female prisoners are now split between a former men’s prison building at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel and the old Jetson Center for Youth in Baker.

They’re sorted into “cohorts” of sick and healthy in both locations, according to corrections officials. For sleeping, the women are asked to “alternate head and foot positions on adjacent bunks to increase their breathing zone,” officials said.

A year ago, before the coronavirus pandemic, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women’s warden had complained the temporary accommodations at Hunt were unsuitable. “These women are literally living on top of one another,” Frederick Boutté said then. “In comparison to other state facilities, these women are jammed up. … I don’t think these are optimal conditions.”

State corrections officials said last week the prison population density for women at Hunt and Jetson is near that for men in some dorms at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Both exceed national accreditation standards from the American Correctional Association, officials said. State corrections officials didn’t directly respond to questions about why the case numbers are higher among female inmates.

“No one could have foreseen that within a four-year period, Louisiana would lose its only female prison, and face a global pandemic of this magnitude,” state corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said in a statement. “We were fortunate to have available jail space to accommodate Louisiana’s state DOC female population until the facility could be funded and rebuilt.”

Returning women’s corrections inmates to permanent housing has taken much longer than expected. The state initially planned to clean out and renovate the flooded prison, and spent millions of dollars on those efforts before ultimately determining the site was not salvageable and asking for federal funding to raze and rebuild. Construction is now expected to start within the next several months.

At the old the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, inmates were largely housed two to a room, each with its own door and opportunities for basic privacy: bathroom stalls instead of freestanding toilets, individual showers in place of communal shower heads.

Prisoner rights advocates argue the ongoing pandemic is highlighting the overcrowded conditions Louisiana’s incarcerated women have been experiencing for years. It’s the latest example of female prisoners being overlooked in a criminal justice system designed for men, those advocates say.

“All kinds of attention should be shed on this because of how the women got there in the first place: the flood,” said Ivy Mathis, who was incarcerated first at the women’s corrections and then at Hunt before being released in 2018. “That situation was never rectified.”

Officials first conducted mass testing in the female dorms at Hunt, finding 87% of about 200 women were infected. Then officials tested everyone at Jetson too, which revealed about 62% of almost 300 inmates have contracted coronavirus. These are some of the first known examples of mass testing conducted across the state.

Two female inmates have died from coronavirus. There have been 12 deaths among Louisiana’s male inmates, all at Angola, which houses more than 6,000 prisoners.

Meanwhile the plans to rebuild LCIW inch along. Pastorick said funding has finally been identified for the $100 million project, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency providing $43 million and the rest coming from state funds and bonds.

Officials are expecting to start construction in late 2020 or beginning of 2021 and estimate the project will take two years to complete. The result — which officials called “a state of the art 964-bed prison, incorporating best practices from across the country” — will be built on higher ground.

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