Louisiana prisoner with COVID-19 dies; reopen debate flares

Posted at 2:26 PM, April 20, 2020 and last updated 4:48 PM, July 21, 2023

By KEVIN McGILL Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A 69-year-old prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary is the first state prisoner known to have died after being diagnosed with COVID-19, state corrections officials announced Monday.

FILE – In this April 7, 2020 file photo, amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of protesters drive around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago, honking their horns and chanting to demand the “mass release” of detainees at the jail. A federal judge has ordered Cook County Jail on Thursday, April, 9, 2020, to take steps to protect inmates from coronavirus. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP File)

Corrections officials did not identify the prisoner, who was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. They said he had an underlying health condition and had been hospitalized since April 15 before dying on Saturday.

Last week, the corrections department said an employee at the prison died with the disease. The coronavirus death toll in Louisiana was 1,328 as of midday Monday.

Louisiana has started the process for temporarily furloughing up to 1,200 inmates, in a bid to decrease the virus’s potential spread in the close confines of prison facilities. Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc created a six-person review panel to consider temporary furloughs for inmates convicted of nonviolent, non-sex-offense crimes who are within the last six months of their sentences. The ACLU of Louisiana has called the process a start but far less than what is needed to reduce the prison population and protect public health.

The debate on prison populations comes as a public debate unfolds on another aspect of the state’s response to the disease caused by the new coronavirus. As hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients decline, pressure on state and local leaders to re-open more of the state’s economy is apparent.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has said soon that he expects soon to announce plans to make elective surgery and other non-emergency medical procedures available again. But he’s cautioned that the state hasn’t yet met various thresholds in federal guidance on whether to begin a phased re-opening of businesses by May 1.

On Sunday, a group of New Orleans businessmen, in a full-page newspaper ad, urged government leaders to reopen the city.

The ad in Sunday’s edition of The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, says “a managed return to work” on May 1 is needed to save the city’s tourism industry and other businesses.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, earlier, had extended the city’s stay-at-home order until May 15.

The Sunday ad brought swift pushback from City Council President Helena Moreno, who said Cantrell was basing decisions on data that could save lives. “I support her putting life, health and safety of New Orleanians above all else,” Moreno said in a news release.

It also sparked strong debate on social media, with some defending the business owners and others accusing them of valuing money over lives.

The disagreements come as testing continues to reveal higher numbers of known coronavirus infections, and the death toll rises daily — but also as the number of those hospitalizations has declined.

The state had more than 24,000 known cases as of midday Monday, with 1,328 deaths. Hospitalizations, which peaked at 2,134 on April 13, numbered 1,794 as of Monday.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that usually clear up within weeks. For some, it can cause severe illness and be life-threatening.


Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte contributed to this report from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.