Prisons and jails are unhealthy environments under normal circumstances. A pandemic makes them even moreso. With people living in tight quarters and limited access to soap, masks, hand sanitizer and other basic supplies, it is no surprise that we have seen the coronavirus ravage many prisons nationwide. Our team realized that people leaving these spaces needed clear information on how to transition back home during this pandemic.
Our Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL) team, including Andrea Armstrong at Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law, Bruce Reilly at Voice of the Experienced, and Ashley Wennerstrom at LSU Center for Healthcare Value and Equity, developed this simple guidance – available in both English and Spanish – to help keep people safe after their incarceration. Individuals denied physical contact with their loved ones during their incarceration look forward to hugs and physical affection – but in doing so, they may expose their family to the covid-19 virus. Team member Bruce Reilly and his colleagues at VOTE recently convinced the Louisiana Department of Corrections to distribute these flyers to everyone being released from Louisiana prisons and to distribute the flyers to local jails.
Covid-19 has made our IRL project focused on prison and jail health in the nation’s incarceration capital more urgent than ever. It has also required us to adapt. Our initial plan was to conduct an environmental scan of health care services in Louisiana prisons, interview medical personnel and incarcerated people, and analyze Medicaid claims among people returning home from incarceration. We are currently responding to current short-term needs we have encountered, while simultaneously laying the foundations for our longer-term project.
We have also prioritized public health oversight of the covid-19 crisis in prisons and jails statewide. We have shared public health infectious disease management guidelines with correctional officials. Some of our team members have collaborated on a campaign for the Louisiana Department of Public Health (LDH) to use its legal authority to address infections and treatment in Louisiana prisons and jail, including establishing a taskforce with community representation to review conditions and procedures. Bruce and Andrea have used their legal expertise to participate in state-wide organizing, strategy and advocacy, including litigation, to support decarceration by state and local authorities. All three team members are also participating in Governor John Bel Edwards’ statewide Health Equity Task Force, which has a sub-committee on the impact of covid-19 on incarcerated populations.
Many of our short-term efforts will also support our ongoing three year IRL project. We have successfully advocated for better data and transparency on covid-19 testing and procedures, which will provide an important lens to understand health care access more generally. We have published covid-19 related articles that also support broader understanding of incarceration and health, including specific decarceration plans, looming realities of uprisings in the face of lockdowns, the roles that community health workers can play in addressing the pandemic, and collaborated with architects to develop guidelines on carceral environments. Through its focused and vocal advocacy on incarcerated health, our community partner, Voice of the Experienced is reaching a national audience, which will enhance our project dissemination efforts. Additional support for our project may come through a pending resolution in the Louisiana legislature. The resolution, which has passed out of committee, would call on our three institutions to study health care in prisons, and provide a report for them in 2021.
Most of the work that we have done over the last few months to support the health of people incarcerated is applicable nationwide. We’d love for you to share the resources linked in this blog, especially our public health guidance [English and Spanish], with your communities, local and state agencies, and government officials.
Ashley Wennerstrom, Bruce Reilly, Andrea Armstrong
IRL Cohort 4, Team Louisiana
Ashley Wennerstrom, Bruce Reilly and Andrea Armstrong are members of Team Louisiana, Cohort Four, Interdisciplinary Research Leaders. Learn more about their IRL project: “Examining the effects of carceral exposure on health services use: Implications for policy and service coordination.”
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.