by Grace Toohey, The Advocate
After more than 40 years as one of the most restrictive housing units within Louisiana’s Angola prison, corrections officials have closed Camp J – which at its peak confined more than 400 prisoners being disciplined in solitary cells for more than 23 hours a day.
While prison officials primarily cited the decades-old facility and its infrastructure for the closure, which they say had created safety issues after years of deterioration, advocates called the move a much-needed end to extremely detrimental conditions.
“The closure of Camp J is a positive step for Angola,” said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the New Orleans-based Promise of Justice Initiative, which has frequently worked on cases surrounding prison conditions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. “Camp J, which was more akin to a dungeon, was used to house individuals who were more in need of mental health treatment than disciplinary action.”
Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc said that while the closure made sense logistically, it also aligned with the department’s goal to improve segregated housing. The Louisiana Department of Corrections partnered in late 2016 with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national organization dedicated to improving the justice system, to work on an initiative known as Safe Alternatives to Segregation, aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement around the nation.
“In lieu of everything else we’re doing in the department to restructure restrictive housing, and to have something like [Camp J] sitting there, just felt like we needed to do something about it,” LeBlanc said. “It’s just not a good place to be, the environment itself is somewhat depressing.”
Vera Institute researchers expected to release their recommendations in summer 2018 for how Louisiana can improve its segregated housing across all state prison facilities, but closing Camp J had become an obvious priority – so having corrections officials preemptively take action was meaningful, said David Cloud, Vera Institute senior program associate.
“I think there’s a genuine desire to do things differently,” Cloud said. “The closure of that space is a huge symbolic victory just because of what it was.... It was a microcosm of a lot of things that are wrong.”
Challenges at Camp J
Camp J became infamous among officers and offenders alike, a spot where conditions were harsh and where severe mental health issues became commonplace. In a letter Angola Warden Darryl Vannoy wrote to LeBlanc in July 2017 advocating for its closure, Vannoy explained that within one year 85 corrections officers assigned to Camp J had resigned, retired or were terminated.
“The challenges staff encounter at Camp J are more complex than other areas of the institution,” Vannoy wrote in the letter, obtained by The Advocate in a public records request. “Numerous times upon an officer’s knowledge that they will be assigned to Camp J or ‘loaned’ to Camp J for work detail they will leave work sick, walk off the job, or report to Human Resources to resign.”
Completed in 1976, Camp J has four cell blocks each with eight tiers made up of 13 single-man cells. It was used to discipline offenders following grave infractions of prison rules, such as fighting with a weapon, or for behavioral issues, officials have said, with the opportunity for offenders to earn their way out after meeting certain conditions.
Vannoy wrote that the locks for the cells in Camp J had recently begun malfunctioning, sometimes opening on their own, and offenders had figured out ways to jam cell doors – often with toothpaste caps or buttons – circumventing security checks by making unlocked cells appear closed. Weapons use had been on the rise along with the security breaches, Vannoy wrote, with 44 weapons found at Camp J in the first seven months of 2017.
LeBlanc said he felt especially glad they closed the facility, knowing of its compromised security, after hearing about the inmate fight that killed seven in a South Carolina prison.
“I think we made the right decision; it was a public safety issue, a staff safety issue and an offender safety issue,” LeBlanc said.
Advocates say Camp J’s rate of suicides and attempts had become a major issue in the desolate cells – two suicides occurred on the same April day in 2016 at Camp J. LeBlanc acknowledged there had been some suicides at Camp J, but said they unfortunately happen everywhere in the prison complex and were not the driving force for Camp J’s closure.
“It’s been known to be a problem for many years,” said Michelle Rutherford, an attorney who represents Terrance Carter, one of the men who committed suicide on April 2, 2016. “We’re glad that it’s shut down, I think it was a long time coming.”
She filed a lawsuit against Department of Public Safety and Corrections’ employees, including LeBlanc and Vannoy, who she claims denied Carter proper mental health care. That, coupled with the harsh and debilitating conditions in Camp J – where he was sent after his first infraction – led to his death, Rutherford claims. Corrections officials declined to comment on pending litigation.
“I think Terrance’s lawsuit in addition to the numerous others that have been brought ... really put the prison on notice,” Rutherford said. “Terrance Carter’s case among others was instrumental in shining a light on the travesties that can occur [in such conditions].”
Cloud said his team at Vera hopes to address the systemic issues that drive Louisiana’s segregated housing, like changing how people are disciplined so they don’t get immediately thrown into segregated housing, improving mental health services before, during and after segregation, and giving real opportunities for offenders to move out of restrictive housing.
He said they also want to ensure that closing Camp J is more than symbolic, and that it doesn’t just mean the department creates more restrictive beds elsewhere. In early 2016, more than 2,000 offenders in Louisiana custody were in some kind of restrictive housing, 200 of whom had been there for more than 36 months, according to the department’s application to Vera, obtained by The Advocate in a public records request.
“There are other segregation tiers; that’s not the sole place,” Cloud said. “Our number one concern is that people aren’t just moving to another segregation tier.”
But department officials say the more than 1,300 offenders in extended lockdown in early 2016 – the type of housing formerly at Camp J – has decreased by about 400 since the shutdown of Camp J, said Department of Corrections Chief of Operations Seth Smith.
“The goal is to reduce two things: the number that we have in cells and the amount of time that they spend in cells, and I think both of those are very realistic goals,” Smith said.
When officials first decided to close Camp J, Smith said, officers stopped sending offenders to the cell blocks for discipline, thus emptying the beds through attrition and then working to prepare offenders across the state to leave segregated housing. The thinking was the offenders who were able to reenter general population would take the beds freed through the criminal justice reforms that became effective in November, which released certain non-violent offenders, Smith said. Then the majority of Camp J offenders were absorbed into other camps at Angola – where there are other extended lockdown cells – or some were also sent to other state facilities with such capacity, Smith said.
“This is a real safety issue, [letting] someone out of restrictive housing,” LeBlanc said. “We want to make sure we’re doing this right, so this is a very slow-pace thing.”
Since February 14, 2018, when the last offenders left Camp J, the cell blocks have been sitting unused at Angola; corrections officials say they hope to repurpose the cell blocks in a way that can better support offenders.
“We would prefer to restructure those beds into something less restrictive,” LeBlanc said, though he noted no decisions have been made. Researchers from Vera plan to give recommendations for the space, which LeBlanc said they will review along with other proposals.
Vannoy wrote to LeBlanc in April 2018 proposing to refurbish Camp J into an Assisted Living Housing Unit, which can better support Angola’s aging population. He wrote that with some modifications, like taking the bars off the cell doorways and showers, the unit could be transformed into handicap accessible facilities with “private rooms,” suitable for older offenders or those with medical diagnoses limiting their daily functions, according to the letter obtained by The Advocate in a public records request.
“From Vera’s perspective, there are a lot of things that are still on the table,” Cloud said. “The last thing we want to do is build more capacity for incarceration in Louisiana, but at the same time you have to work on real solutions that are going to improve the lives of those who are there.... There is an opportunity to repurpose that space to dignify the people who live there.”
This article was originally published by The Advocate (www.theadvocate.com) on May 13, 2018. It is reprinted with permission, with minor edits. Copyright, The Advocate.
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