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Whistleblowing Angola Prisoner Who Faced Retaliation Wins Relief, Redemption

William Kissinger was “widely regarded as a positive leader at Angola by both prisoners and staff” over the 27 years he spent at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. That is, until corrections officials became incensed with the content of his email conversations with Maya Lau, a reporter for The Advocate, a Baton Rouge-based newspaper, in 2015.

Lau reached out to Kissinger, 64, after she learned he had won a whistleblower case in 1995 after he experienced retaliation for exposing the relabeling and sale of expired cans of food. Lau sent Kissinger a letter and asked to be placed on his visitation list.

Kissinger’s previous experiences made him anxious about contact with the press. Therefore, he advised a staff member about the letter and was told that Asst. Warden Bruce Dodd said Kissinger should “not worry about” communicating with Lau. Kissinger sent a message to Lau through a friend’s monitored email system, advising her to establish a JPay account so they could correspond.

In December 2015, Lau and Kissinger exchanged emails about life at Angola and corruption involving funds generated from the infamous Angola prison rodeo. Then, on February 1, 2016, “Kissinger sent Lau a message indicating he had a large amount of information he was delivering to her via letter soon,” his subsequent civil rights complaint stated. He highlighted questions The Advocate should be asking as part of its ongoing investigation into financial improprieties at Angola, and said he had additional information that Lau would be interested in seeing.

By February 4, 2016, Angola officials had decided it was time to cage the canary. Kissinger was called to Angola’s exit area and informed he was being written up for violating a rule on General Prohibition Behaviors. He was given 15 minutes to pack his belongings and had to leave $2,500 in hobbycraft materials and other property either in his assigned area or in the possession of other prisoners. The refusal of prison staff to inventory his property resulted in its total loss.

Kissinger was transferred to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, where any property over a one-bag limit was thrown away. He used the last $27 in his account to send an expensive woodmaking tool to a friend to avoid having it destroyed. “All told, Mr. Kissinger lost most of his personal property, which he worked hard to purchase with his own money over the time he was in prison,” his complaint stated.

Kissinger was then placed in “the Dungeon.” He spent 18 days in solitary confinement for a disciplinary charge even though he was never advised of the reason for the infraction. He was moved to “the working cellblock,” where he remained until June 10, 2016. His appeals were denied, as was the Cellblock Review Board’s first recommendation to return him to medium custody. He ended up spending 20 months at Elayn Hunt.

Attorney Kate M. Schwartzmann with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center took up Kissinger’s cause and filed a lawsuit on January 25, 2017 that alleged his First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by the retaliation he experienced for communicating with the press.

A September 5, 2017 settlement agreement between the parties provided for expungement of the disciplinary charge and Kissinger’s return to Angola with reinstatement of his classification, housing and job assignment. The settlement included details regarding his pay rate, his status as a trustee and access to a hobbyshop box; it also specified he will not be subjected to further retaliation.

“What was most important to him always was getting his life back, and this agreement accomplishes that,” Schwartzmann stated.

So why did Kissinger incur the wrath and retaliation of prison officials in the first place? As previously reported in PLN, longtime Angola warden Burl Cain’s son, Nate, and his daughter-in-law face criminal charges for using their positions for personal gain. [See: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.42]. Presumably, the information that Kissinger had offered to Lau would have shed light on the Cains’ misdeeds – or at least prison officials thought that might be the case.

In February 2018, Nate Cain, who had served as warden at the Avoyelles Correctional Center, and former Major Randon Harrington were indicted by a grand jury. Both were charged with aggravated malfeasance in connection with Cain’s efforts to derail an investigation into an alleged improper relationship between a prisoner and a guard. Cain had retired prior to the indictment, while Harrington was fired.

The charges against Cain are in addition to an unrelated federal case that involves 18 counts of fraud for using state-issued credit cards for his personal benefit. His wife, Tonia Bandy, who was the business manager at the Avoyelles prison, faces similar charges.

Taking a stand is rarely popular and often involves personal sacrifice. Kissinger and Schwartzmann set an example that justice can prevail, eventually, with perseverance and a little help. See: Kissinger v. LeBlanc, U.S.D.C. (M.D. La), Case No. 3:17-cv-00011-JWD-EWD.

Additional source: The Advocate


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Related legal case

Kissinger v. LeBlanc