Attorneys for various inmates have filed suit in federal court demanding that Louisiana release its juvenile prisoners in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit claims conditions have become dangerous for juvenile prisoners, 28 of whom have tested positive for the coronavirus along with 41 staffers. Those numbers could rise with more testing, the lawsuit noted.
The prisoners are between 10 and 21 years old and are held at four facilities run by Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), said the class action suit filed by attorneys with the Juvenile Law Center, O’Melveny & Myers LLP, The Promise of Justice Initiative, and the law office of John Adcock.
While the OJJ has reportedly taken steps to protect juveniles from the virus, these have proved insufficient in the unsanitary and cramped conditions that hold the prisoners in lockdown for 23 hours a day, according to the lawsuit.
“Exposing children to grave medical risk while simultaneously shutting down programming is truly the worst of both worlds,” said Marsha Levick, the Juvenile Law Center’s chief legal officer. “Stripping children of their liberty in the name of treatment but instead locking them in highly confined spaces flips public health strategy on its head and ignores the constitutional rights of children in state custody.”
Parents of detainees under 18 are also listed as plaintiffs, and some of them provided declarations attached to the lawsuit.
They allege state officials have not kept them informed of their children’s condition, and that some inmates who have spoken with family have described horrific conditions.
One OJJ official disputed those accounts to NBC News, saying parents have been kept in the loop and that masks and hand sanitizer have been widely distributed in the system.
State officials had no immediate response to the lawsuit Thursday, though earlier they had said all the juveniles and staffers who tested positive for the virus have recovered.
Named as defendants were Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Department of Public Safety, OJJ acting chief Edward Dustin Bickham, and other officials.
The OJJ has been the subject of intense criticism in recent years from prison reform activists, who accuse the state of holding juveniles in poor conditions. It was unclear Thursday precisely how many people are held in the four facilities, which are reportedly plagued by violence and inadequate supervisory staff.
Mr. Edwards appointed Mr. Bickham to head OJJ when the prior deputy secretary resigned suddenly and without explanation March 25.
During the COVID-19 emergency, the system has limited visitors and screened those entering the facilities, while providing personal protective equipment to staff, according to the department.
While Louisiana has tried to bolster security staff, eight juveniles broke out of the facility in Monroe last weekend, according to reports in the New Orleans Advocate.
Prisoners across the country have been filing lawsuits based on conditions in detention centers during the pandemic.
Inmates at a geriatric prison in Texas said their facility didn’t protect them from COVID-19 and some have died. While the district court sided with them and issued an injunction for the prison to follow improved cleaning measures so as not to violate the 8th Amendment, the 5th U.S. Circuit stayed the lower court’s move.
The prisoners attempted to get the Supreme Court to reinstate the injunction, but the high court declined to do so Thursday.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a statement respecting the court’s move, but acknowledged there were “disturbing allegations.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the statement.
“While states and prisons retain discretion in how they respond to health emergencies, federal courts do have an obligation to ensure that prisons are not deliberately indifferent in the face of danger and death,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.
• Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.
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