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Louisiana Prison Officials Sued for Trying to Block Investigation into Abuse of Disabled Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

Alleging a “culture of cover-up and excessive force,” the MacArthur Justice Center and the Advocacy Center of Louisiana (ACL) filed a class-action lawsuit in February 2018 against officials at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDPSC) and the David Wade Correctional Center (DWCC).

The suit followed a contentious investigation by ACL, which was itself the subject of litigation that settled in August 2017, after the New Orleans-based non-profit accused DWCC staff of interfering with and impeding its efforts to investigate alleged abuse of disabled prisoners.

ACL is Louisiana’s designated advocacy organization for individuals with disabilities under the federal Protection and Advocacy system.

Prior to filing its initial suit in June 2017, ACL received “alarming reports of serious abuse of people with disabilities incarcerated in the lockdown units” at DWCC. A review of written complaints from prisoners and interviews led the organization to conclude that probable cause existed to investigate DWCC.

ACL then set up an appointment to tour the facility and interview prisoners. But when its investigators arrived at DWCC on June 21, 2017, they were not allowed to enter cells or recreation areas; they also were prohibited from asking staff or prisoners questions. Nor were prison employees allowed to talk to investigators or answer their questions.

After the initial tour, when personal interviews were finally allowed, investigators and prisoners were not allowed to exchange documentation – not even a business card.

MacArthur Justice Center attorney Katharine M. Schwartzmann and ACL investigators returned to DWCC on July 13 to see prisoner “J.W.,” because “the Advocacy Center had reason to believe that he was extremely suicidal and at risk of immediate harm.” However, Warden Jerry Goodwin and Col. Lonnie Nail refused to allow the visit because J.W. “was on suicide watch and hunger strike.”

ACL staff also wanted to investigate several alleged problems at DWCC, including:

• Failure to provide adequate mental health care to prisoners,

• Failure to properly screen for mental illness,

• Extended solitary and segregated confinement of mentally ill prisoners, and

• Other “acts and omissions.”

The latter included incidents of verbal and physical abuse – such as mentally ill prisoners who were struck or sprayed with bleach. Some were reportedly stripped of clothing during the winter, with fans turned on and windows opened. Others had heaters turned on during summer time and were not allowed to remove their jumpsuits to cool off. One allegation detailed how mentally ill prisoners were forced to kneel or get on all fours and bark like dogs in exchange for food. One prisoner was made to unclog a toilet by hand.

The settlement in the initial suit did not resolve any of those claims but merely allowed them to be investigated by ACL. Although concerned about the use of chemical agents on prisoners – LDPSC spokesman Ken Pastorick admitted to 149 incidents in 2016 and the first half of 2017 – Advocacy Center investigators also wanted to know how mental health complaints were being handled at DWCC. Prisoners said those seeking mental health care were charged with malingering at disciplinary hearings and punished with prolonged use of physical restraints and a restraint chair.

In addition to Warden Goodwin and Col. Nail, LDPSC Secretary James LeBlanc was named as a defendant in both lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge.

The settlement terms for the initial suit gave ACL complete access to prisoners and their records when conducting a lawful investigation. The only limitation was that ACL staff must be on an approved list of DWCC visitors and complete a training seminar in prison operations, safety concerns and security risks.

The settlement agreement spelled out details for ACL’s access to DWCC, prisoners, records and staff, including hours and advance notice requirements, as well as the equipment ACL investigators were allowed to bring with them. They were also provided a visitation room to conduct confidential interviews. The parties further agreed to the payment of attorneys’ fees to the ACL and MacArthur Justice Center.

“We’re very alarmed about how people are being treated,” said Schwartzmann. “There are some serious allegations that we’re trying to get in there to investigate.” See: Advocacy Center v. LeBlanc, U.S.D.C. (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00468-JWD-EWD.

The subsequent class-action lawsuit filed in February 2018 was a result of the investigation into claims that DWCC prisoners were subjected to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment due to “extreme, abusive conditions” at the facility.

Prisoners seeking mental health care were placed on suicide watch. Stripped naked, they remained in solitary confinement for weeks, leading some to mutilate themselves or attempt suicide to escape the conditions, according to the 53-page complaint. The suit concluded that “virtually no mental health care is provided to prisoners on extended lockdown, aside from scattershot, poorly administered and inconsistent medication.”

Two prisoners are named as plaintiffs in the case. Anthony Tellis claims his mental illness developed only after he was placed on extended lockdown in February 2016, where he remains. Bruce Charles, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder before entering DWCC, says he also has been on extended lockdown since June 2016.

A third prisoner named in the suit, Terrance Goudeau, was on extended lockdown when he hanged himself and died in June 2016, never receiving mental health care despite frequent requests.

In addition to the improper use of segregation, the class-action alleges widespread physical abuse of mentally ill prisoners at DWCC. The use of temperature extremes as a punishment tool – particularly cold weather, which ill-clothed or naked prisoners are forced to endure – is reportedly so common that it has a nickname: “bluesing” or “getting bluesed.”

LDPSC spokesman Pastorick called the claims in the lawsuit “outlandish,” adding that prison officials “look forward to our day in court.” The case remains pending. See: Tellis v. LeBlanc, U.S.D.C. (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:18-cv-00161-SDD-RLB. 

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, Shreveport Times, www.usnews.com, www.abcnews.go.com

 

Related legal cases

Tellis v. LeBlanc

Advocacy Center v. LeBlanc


 

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