Zurik: Attorneys ask judge to end St. Tammany Jail’s extended use of holding cells, citing concerns of COVID-19

Zurik: Attorneys ask judge to end St. Tammany Jail’s extended use of holding cells, citing concerns of COVID-19
The St. Tammany Parish Jail in Covington seen in an undated file photo. (Source: WVUE-TV)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Attorneys suing the St. Tammany Parish Jail over extended use of holding cells, keeping inmates there for days -- if not weeks -- are asking a judge to step in and force the jail to stop those practices amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Louisiana.

A FOX 8 Lee Zurik Investigation uncovered the use of 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.

Attorney Devon Jacob and attorneys with Romanucci & Blandin filed the suit in March and filed the request for an injunction on Friday with the federal court in the Eastern District of Louisiana. The attorneys also filed a separate request to have the issue be expedited for a hearing due to the health emergency. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the chief judge of the federal court issued orders that the district would only hear certain items via teleconference due to the COVID-19 health emergency.

Late Friday, the attorneys were notified the court would allow a telephone hearing on the matter before a magistrate judge if all parties consented to the teleconference.

The attorneys say the jail’s practices are placing pretrial detainees, jail staff and the community at grave risk, in light of the outbreak in the state. The group of attorneys seek the judge to enforce a set of rules through May 31, 2020.

Among the items the attorneys seek include holding inmates in a way that follows social distancing guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The attorneys also ask the judge to force the sheriff’s office to hold inmates in the holding cell area for 48 hours, which aligns with the state’s own minimum jail standards.

The filing also asks the court to require that inmates be given access to soap and fresh water, daily access to showers, clean clothing, sanitary bedding and the cleaning of cells.

Attorneys also ask the court to require the jail to report every 48 hours a count of persons or staff that have contracted or are suspected to have contracted COVID-19. They also ask the report to include the number of people in quarantine.

The case is assigned before District Judge Wendy Vitter and Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson, Jr.

It is not known whether COVID-19 has been reported among inmates or staff at the St. Tammany Jail. Late last month the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office said they had only two inmates in holding cells.

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