NEW ORLEANS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today sued for the release of public records about a secretive state panel that was intended to facilitate the temporary release of vulnerable people from state prisons amid COVID-19.
In April, as public health experts warned that prisons would become powderkegs for COVID-19, the Louisiana Department of Corrections created a Furlough Review Panel with the stated purpose of reducing the prison population in order to protect public health. The panel was tasked with considering 1,100 people who were imprisoned for low-level offenses and within 180 days of their scheduled release. But three months later, reporting by The Advocate found that the panel examined fewer than 600 of those cases and approved 100 for release, and only 63 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 of Louisiana filed a public records request in May seeking additional information about the process and criteria of the review process, as well as meeting agendas and panel members. The Louisiana Department of Corrections has asserted that the COVID-19 Furlough Review Panel is exempt from Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law and produced only one document in response.