Note: The following op-ed appeared originally in The Daily Advertiser

Across the country and especially here in Louisiana, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder that mass incarceration is not only deeply antithetical to our values, it is also a deadly accelerant for this disease. 

COVID-19 has spread like wildfire through Louisiana’s overcrowded prisons, where Black people make up the overwhelming majority of the population and where squalid, unsanitary conditions have become incubators for the virus.

Even as Louisiana begins to reopen, mass incarceration remains an imminent threat to public health. Without stronger action by Governor John Bel Edwards and other state and federal officials, the festering outbreaks in our prisons will continue to threaten our recovery and hinder attempts to contain this pandemic.

An epidemiological model released by the ACLU and academic research partners showed that the COVID-19 death toll could be approximately 100,000 higher than current projections estimate if jail populations are not dramatically and immediately reduced. 

Most of these facilities are located in remote rural areas, which means that as these outbreaks spill beyond the prison walls, the impact will be felt most acutely in areas where health care capacity is already limited and ICU beds are perilously scarce.

According to data compiled by the Marshall Project, there have been more than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Louisiana prisons, not including outbreaks in federal facilities like Oakdale, where coronavirus has killed at least eight men and sickened scores more.

While state and federal officials have assured the public and the courts that they have the tools to protect the people in their custody and the surrounding communities, the evidence – and the harrowing stories emerging from these facilities – prove otherwise. 

George Escamilla was two days from his scheduled release date when he succumbed to COVID-19. A 67-year-old grandfather, Escamilla was serving a 16-year sentence for a drug offense and had lost both his legs due to complications of his diabetes. 

Patrick Jones had been locked up for nearly 13 years on a drug charge when he died of COVID-19 in March. Jones hadn't seen his youngest son since the boy was a toddler, and he  begged for mercy from a judge, writing shortly before his death: “Years of 'I am sorry' don't seem to justify the absence of a father or the chance of having purpose in life by raising my child.” 

Public health experts have been clear that reducing prison populations is the only way to effectively stop these outbreaks and contain the spread of COVID-19, but officials have utterly failed to heed these warnings – with deadly consequences for the people in their care. 

In fact, an investigation by ProPublica found that even as the Department of Justice was announcing plans to “maximize” home confinement amid COVID-19, officials were quietly rewriting the rules to make it harder for federal prisoners to gain release.  

While well-connected Trump associates like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen are now able to safely self-isolate in their homes, the vast majority of incarcerated people continue to languish in horrifying conditions with no way out and no way to protect themselves from this deadly disease.

The situation at Oakdale has deteriorated to a point where the warden has been reassigned and corrections workers have filed multiple “imminent danger” complaints with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

This failure of leadership has not only caused untold human suffering within our prisons, it also threatens the health of the communities surrounding them. 

Mass incarceration, which has long been a stain on America’s justice system, is now the Achilles’ heel of our recovery. 

State and federal officials eager to reopen our economy should start by addressing this glaring vulnerability and reduce prison populations now – before more lives are lost.