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Federal Court Hears that Mental Healthcare in Louisiana Prison is “Almost Non-existent”

State’s “scorched-earth” strategy runs up $3 million legal tab

by Matt Clarke

A bench trial opened at a federal court in Louisiana on January 10, 2022, with dramatic testimony from a former state prisoner, who said he witnessed guards at the David Wade Correctional Center (DWCC) order a mentally ill prisoner to shower in winter and then, while the man was still naked and wet, opened the windows and turned a fan on him.

Attorneys for the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) dismissed the testimony of Dameion Brumfeld, insisting that the practice he called “bluesing” is a myth. But an expert witness for the plaintiffs—a group of mentally disabled DWCC prisoners—provided testimony that was equally withering. Dr. Kathryn Burns, the former head of psychiatry for Ohio’s prison system, told the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana that from what she observed, mental health care at DWCC was “insufficient, and almost non-existent except for medication,” and even that “was not accurately administered, or documented, or supervised.”

The trial got underway after a ruling by the Court on January 6, 2022, refusing Defendants’ motion to dismiss claims under the First and Eighth Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act, in a class-action suit challenging conditions of confinement for mentally ill prisoners at the state prison in Claiborne Parish.

The named plaintiffs, Bruce Charles, Carlton Turner, Larry Jones, and Ronald Brooks, all suffer mental disabilities, yet they claimed to endure “extended lockdown” conditions that kept them confined to their cells 23 hours a day. With the aid of Disability Rights Louisiana (formerly The Advocacy Center), they filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging those conditions and seeking class certification. [See: PLN, April 2018, p.32.]

The suit claims that at the South Compound of DWCC, 366 prisoners were held in extended lockdown as of March 20, 2020, approximately 48 of whom had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness (SMI), with another 92 to 146 suffering a less-serious mental illness.

The prisoners said they were confined 23 hours per day in one-man or two-man cells and permitted just one ten-minute phone call per month. Those on “yard restriction” remained in their cells except for 50 minutes of “yard time” per weekend. In three of the compound’s five buildings, prisoners were allegedly denied all rehabilitative programming, while those in a fourth building could attend one “re-entry” class per week and eat in a common area.

During their limited time outside (“yard time”), the men said they were confined in cages too small for meaningful physical activity. They were also allowed only one religious book and three other books or magazines. No radios, crafts or televisions were permitted, except for a common TV in one building. Worse, these lockdowns were indefinite, with only “perfunctory reviews” every 90 days. Some men have been in extended lockdown for many years.

In addition to this, evidence was also presented that the person most responsible for the class members’ mental health care is a “poorly trained, unqualified, and unlicensed” DWCC staff member who “‘conducts psychotherapy’ despite lacking training or a license to do so; [and] the only licensed clinical social worker employed at the facility ‘does not go on rounds in the prison’” and lacks knowledge of the conditions of extended lockdown and its psychological effect on class members which, according to the testimony of their experts, can cause or exacerbate mental disabilities.

The Court split the complicated case into two phases, the first of which will determine Defendants’ liability after the trial concludes, and then the second phase will determine appropriate remedies. See: Tellis v. Leblanc, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3593 (W.D. La.).

At the trial, DPS lawyers argued that DWCC has no mentally ill prisoners who aren’t stable or in remission. The prison’s only contracted psychiatrist, Dr. Gregory Seal, also testified that he was unaware of health risks for mentally ill prisoners who are held in isolation, despite warnings to the contrary by the American Psychiatric Association.

But Burns criticized the infrequency of mental health evaluations for DWCC prisoners—which happen just once every 30 days—as well as their brevity (three to five minutes each, according to Seal) and their lack of confidentiality (held cell-front, with a provider seated outside in the corridor). She added that the “individualized” treatment plans she examined all looked the same, and that when prisoners requested counseling, “I did not see it provided.”

In an earlier ruling on September 20, 2021, the Court certified a class of prisoners who are or will be in extended lockdown and a subclass of prisoners with ADA-qualifying mental disabilities held at DWCC. It also rejected defendants’ claim that the named plaintiffs could not represent the class and subclass because they had been transferred to other prisons or released since the lawsuit was filed. The Court appointed plaintiffs’ counsel as class counsel and certified the class and subclass. See: Tellis v. LeBlanc, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179228 (W.D. La.).

The long-running case is running up quite a tab for the state. Even before the trial opened, DPS had shelled out $2.9 million in attorney’s fees for its defense: an initial $937,000 contract to the Baton Rouge firm of Kantrow Spaht Weaver & Blitzer (KSW&B) for work in 2018 and 2019, followed by a $2 million contract for 2020 and 2021 with Butler Snow, a Mississippi firm that acquired KSW&B.

“These are taxpayer dollars that should be spent on state programs, rather than on lawyers,” lamented plaintiffs’ attorney Katie Schwartzmann.

She characterized the high legal expense as part of the state’s focus “on scorched-earth litigation over common-sense improvements.”   

Additional sources: The Lens, Louisiana Illuminator, Shreveport Times

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Related legal case

Tellis v. Leblanc