Zurik: Judge denies injunction over crowded St. Tammany Jail cells, says jail has already taken ’significant’ measures regarding Coronavirus

Zurik: Judge denies injunction over crowded St. Tammany Jail cells, says jail has already taken ’significant’ measures regarding Coronavirus
A sign posted at the St. Tammany Parish Jail about precautions in place due to COVID-19. The photo was among several submitted in response to a request for a temporary injunction filed against the jail over concerns of crowded cells and the coronavirus. (Source: St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office/WVUE-TV File)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A federal district court judge has denied a group of attorneys’ efforts for an injunction to stop the St. Tammany Parish Jail’s crowded jail cells. The attorneys filed the request for a temporary injunction citing concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak in Louisiana.

The parish’s crowded holding cells in the jail were first uncovered in a FOX 8 Lee Zurik Investigation which showed the parish used holding cells to hold anywhere between 15 and 30 inmates in a small concrete room. The practice went against guidelines set out in the Louisiana minimum jail standards.

Statewide, the outbreak has killed hundreds of Louisianans and sickened tens of thousands since first discovered in the state in early March. Since then, Governor John Bel Edwards instituted stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines in order to flatten the curve of new cases in the state.

Attorney Devon Jacob and attorneys with Romanucci & Blandin filed a lawsuit in March over the crowded cells and once the coronavirus outbreak escalated in the state, the group filed a request for a temporary injunction citing the finding of the Lee Zurik Investigation and how the conditions could threaten the spread of COVID-19 in the jail and community.

During a nearly four-hour-long hearing held by teleconference due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Chadwick Collings and attorneys for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office argued they had already implemented policies weeks prior to respond to the threat of Coronavirus.

Collings noted the jail had thinned out the population in holding cells to twelve pre-trial inmates in four holding cells. He said the jail also had policies in place to put signage across the facility about COVID-19, limiting visitation to the facility and procedures for sanitizing areas daily.

The jail’s attorneys also noted that policies were put in place for inmates being processed into the facility and those that have to leave the facility and return to be isolated from larger groups to monitor for COVID-related symptoms.

One of the plaintiffs on the case, a current inmate at the St. Tammany Jail, said he was in isolation as a precaution since returning from University Medical Center for a procedure not related to COVID-19.

In her decision, published Saturday, District Court Judge Wendy Vitter said the following:

“The Court in no way discounts the risks and seriousness of COVID-19 in confinement; in fact, the Court gives great weight to plaintiffs’ exhibits which note the heightened risk associated with jails and correctional centers. Defendants have proven through their evidence that the jail currently does not have any COVID-19 cases. Further, Defendants have established that they have implemented significant measures to comply with the CDC Guidelines and other guidance for correctional facilities in efforts to protect the health of its inmates and staff. Defendants have also proven that the general inmate population has been reduced, and that there are currently 12 pretrial detainees within the four holding cells.”
U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Vitter

The initial lawsuit on behalf of St. Tammany Parish inmates, two formerly incarcerated and one currently in the facility, for past practices of overcrowding exposed in the FOX 8 Lee Zurik Investigation is still pending in federal court.

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