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Louisiana Fights Federal Court Order to Remedy “Callous and Wanton Disregard” for Angola Prisoners’ Healthcare

by David M. Reutter

 

On November 6, 2023, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana issued a Remedial Order (RO) to correct unconstitutional healthcare at Louisiana State Prison in Angola. In a companion opinion, the Court found the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) did not provide Angola prisoners “care at all, but abhorrent and unusual punishment that violates the United States Constitution.”

But rather than use the state’s resources to address the deficiencies, DPSC is spending even more in attorney’s fees on a trip to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which agreed to hear the case and stayed the RO on March 6, 2024. See: Parker v. Hooper, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 5445 (5th Cir.).

The state’s decision is sadly predictable. Over 26 years have passed since the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found in 1989 that DPSC failed to provide adequate medical and psychiatric care to Angola prisoners. A 1992 class-action lawsuit that DOJ joined attempted to address provision of healthcare. But a 2009 report ordered from consulting prison healthcare giant Wexford Health Sources still “found multiple medical care deficiencies.” The district court said “the human cost” of DPSC’s long delay was “unspeakable.”

Though its RO was stayed, the district court’s opinion is noteworthy for summarizing 11 cases of “callous and wanton disregard” for prisoner healthcare at Angola. One prisoner waited three months for a CT scan that was ordered after an X-ray revealed a suspected malignancy. The scan confirmed a lesion, but another four-month delay ensued before a pulmonologist ordered a biopsy—which never occurred. Over a year after the x-ray, the prisoner had surgery for partial removal of the cancerous lung. But chemotherapy was delayed, and the prisoner died.

Another prisoner “complained of chest pain for more than 16 months” before he saw a thoracic surgeon, who ordered a biopsy of a pulmonary nodule. “When finally performed, the biopsy revealed adenocarcinoma of the lung,” the district court recalled, adding: “The patient died a week later.” Yet another prisoner “underwent a colectomy due to untreated Chron’s disease.” Prison officials “failed to refer him to a gastroenterologist, failed to provide indicated immunosuppressive therapy, and failed to perform to adequate physical examinations.” In what became a familiar coda, the district court noted: “The patient died.”

Then there was a 65-year-old prisoner whose medical history included diabetes, severe coronary artery disease and heart failure. He showed up in the prison infirmary “with fevers as high as 103.6 degrees, altered mental state, and complaints of chest tightness.” Yet he was locked down and not seen by a doctor for three days. Two days after returning to his cell, he was found vomiting. But medical staffers ordered emergency responders not to transport him to a hospital. The result: “He died in his cell the next day.”

After a liability trial in the current class-action, which was filed in 2015, Angola was found to provide constitutionally inadequate clinical, specialty, emergency and infirmary care, as well as deficient medical leadership and organization. The district court further found constitutional violations in provision of care for prisoners with disabilities. Settlement negotiations failed, so a remedy phase trial was held. That resulted in the RO, under which three Special Masters were to be appointed: one physician, one nurse or nurse practitioner, and someone with “knowledge and expertise in handicap and disability access and accommodations.” After that, Defendants would have 120 days to submit a proposed Remedial Plan for each area of deficiency. But DPSC’s appeal has stayed that.

“Everything we found when we began investigating this case more than six years ago was occurring against the backdrop of Angola’s brutal history of slavery and convict leasing,” said Mercedes Montagnes, one of Plaintiffs’ attorneys. “People were being forced out into the fields and into factories to work and were not being treated for their injuries and heat stroke. Men risk their lives at the prison rodeo every year, which generates millions of dollars in profits for the prison, and were not being treated for their broken bones. People were dying prematurely from treatable cancers.”

Noting that Louisiana “has the highest percentage of its prison population serving life without the possibility of parole sentences in the United States,” Nishi Kumar, another attorney representing Plaintiffs, said that the age of Angola prisoners keeps rising “but the state has not appropriately changed its medical care to meet the consequences of its incarceration policies.” Kumar called on Louisiana to “start paying to meet the constitutional standard for medical care and disability access, or start looking for mechanisms to release older prisoners who pose no risk to the public.”

The prisoner class is zealously represented by attorneys from Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in New York City, Democracy Forward in Washington, D.C., Defend Louisiana, Disability Rights Louisiana, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and the Southern Poverty Law Center. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Lewis v. Cain, USDC, (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00318.

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Related legal cases

Parker v. Hooper

Lewis v. Cain