ACLU sues for release of documents pertaining to COVID-19 inmate releases

ACLU suing DOC for documents pertaining to review committee to release inmates during pandemic

NEW ORLEANS (WAFB) - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing for the release of public records about a state panel that was created to facilitate the temporary release of certain vulnerable inmates from state prison during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in April, many health experts warned that prisons could become ideal locations for COVID-19 to spread given the close quarters. As such, the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) created a review panel with the goal of reducing the state’s prison population for the purpose of protecting public health.

“There’s been this sort of secretive approach to this body’s workings and we’re trying to sort of peel back that layer of secrecy,” said attorney, Bruce Hamilton. “What we’re saying is that the department is essentially stonewalling and refusing to produce documents it should have produced months ago.”

The panel was tasked with considering more than 1,000 people who were imprisoned for minor offenses and within 180 days of their scheduled release dates. However, according to The Advocate, the panel examined far fewer inmates than its goal and very few were expected to be released.

“The numbers confirm that this secretive panel was a sham, and now, state officials are adding insult to injury by stonewalling our attempts to find out why,” said Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana executive director. “For months, Louisiana officials have ignored the warnings of public health experts and allowed rampant outbreaks to ravage our prison system. These were taxpayer dollars at work, and the people of Louisiana deserve to know why the panel denied, by fiat and behind closed doors, the temporary release of demonstrably low-risk, vulnerable people during a pandemic.”

The ACLU filed a public records request back in May, asking for more information about the panel’s review process, as well as meeting agendas and the names of panel members. According to the ACLU, officials with DOC have insisted the panel is exempt from state open meetings laws and only provided one document.

"I think everybody should be concerned that it's less than two percent of the total population. We know that there has to be more people in prison who are eligible under these criteria for release," said Hamilton.

DOC launched the furlough program back in April and a spokesman says they agency stopped those reviews in June because the state entered Phase 2. Hamilton says the state is in worse shape now than it was when the program started, so he believes more inmates who are non-violent and near the end of their sentence should have the option to get out.

WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked the attorney if he thought the program should have resumed.

“I mean, the panel should have never stopped doing its job and it should continue to review people for eligibility,” said Hamilton.

A DOC spokesman tells WAFB they do plan to hand over the public records, but says they were disheartened by the lawsuit in the following statement:

“We are disappointed that they chose to file a lawsuit in this matter at this point, considering they were told the documents would be available.”

WAFB is told DOC plans to release those public records by Friday, Aug. 21.

Click here to read the petition filed Monday, Aug. 10.

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