Friday, April 17, 2020

Update From Angola: "Today Was Stranger Than Most"

Received early this morning from inside the walls:

"Today was stranger than most. There's something weird going on and no one is talking directly to us about it. The daily briefings we were having with the officials here have ceased and dorms are being placed on quarantine one after the other. Today, it was the dorm next door. Tomorrow, it will probably extend to our dorm as well. No one from any unit is allowed to come in contact with anyone from another unit; we have to do everything separately -- eat, shop at the canteen, have yard, etc.

"We are basically being kept in the dark about the scope of the outbreak here, but some information about new cases inside Angola is slowly reaching us from outside sources. I did find out today that the reason the dorm next door went on quarantine is because a guy tested positive for the virus after displaying flu-like symptoms. Here's the really weird part: another guy who was living in that dorm was moved into our dorm a few days ago. Then, when the guy from his former dorm tested positive, security suddenly came got the guy who had moved into our dorm and locked him up. So we are left wondering whether or not he was exposed to the virus before being moved into our dorm. The incompetence of some of the people in charge of our safety is astounding to say the least, which leads me to believe that things are far worse than we realize at the moment.

"Tempers are beginning to flare and the tension is getting so thick you could almost cut it with knife. The TV stays on CNN nearly all day everyday now and as more and more people succumb to the virus, the more anxious and nervous everyone in here seems to get. I'm curious to see what new revelations tomorrow will bring. I tend to think that I am prepared for anything, but these are uncertain times and I don't know if anyone is truly prepared for what comes next."

NOTE: A different source reported that five men were taken out of Ash-1 yesterday. No names are available at this time, but one of the men was reported to have left the institution. What that means has been left to conjecture. But if you have a friend or loved one in Ash-1, you should call Angola and ask for a wellness check.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

CJ LeBlanc: Angola Prisoners Say: "This is a war -- and we're in it."

This article was written by CJ LeBlanc and published at Hard Crackers on April 13, 2020.

The United States, with 4.4% of the world’s population, incarcerates no less than 22% of the world’s prisoners, far more per capita than any other country. It’s been widely acknowledged that this has a lot to do with the “War on Drugs” initiated by Richard Nixon in 1971 (a man, we should remember, who was himself a criminal, but never served a day behind bars). Indeed, when the “War on Drugs” was launched, the prison and jail population in the U.S. stood at 171 per 100,000. Today, it’s 655 per 100,000 nationally. And in Louisiana, it’s an astonishing 1,052 per 100,000.

Some might suggest that Louisiana’s high incarceration rate is driven by the state’s poor record in the areas of education, economy, and quality of life in general. After all, nobody’s born a criminal. But whatever the root causes, the sudden descending of COVID-19 into the prison population has presented the state with a dilemma so crucial it is likely to find itself shortly under very intense federal scrutiny.

Prisoners’ rights advocates and organizations concerned with criminal justice are weighing in assertively to push for strict adherence to protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the American Disabilities Act. Even the Louisiana Department of Health has issued a detailed memo to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections outlining its very clear recommendations. And the DPSC is responding that they are doing everything in their power to live up to the exigencies of the situation.

Reports from incarcerated citizens inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, however, beg to differ. The following quotes are from letters, emails, and phone calls to people on the outside of the walls from various prisoners inside Angola.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Angola Prisoners Await Their Fate

by CJ LeBlanc

In the past ninety days, the human race has found itself in the strangle-hold of a pandemic. United States citizens watched the first two months as if it was an apocalyptic movie. Now scrambling for face masks and toilet paper, though, Americans are riveted to social media while being ordered to shelter in place. And, since identifying the first case within U.S. borders on January 20th, the horrifying tally has risen to more than 400,000 cases and 10,000 deaths (as this is being written).

Still, there are nearly two and a half million men, women, and children who are particularly concerned as this nightmare closes in around us. They are incarcerated citizens. They are, by and large, unable to protect themselves in the myriad ways the rest of us are being urged to do. And they are trying not to despair as they fear they are being forgotten or dismissed.

In Louisiana alone, for example, fifty thousand prisoners (and that doesn’t count the roughly 8,000 immigrant detainees that are even further under the radar than the others) rise in hope every morning that they might be released, not because they think it’s necessarily likely but because if they are not, the chances they may die soon and far from their families cannot be denied.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Louisiana's Coronavirus Plan For Prisons Could Create Death Camps

This hearse was built by prisoners at Angola to carry men to the burial ground on the property. With the current onslaught of COVID-19, it is unlikely there will be time for pomp and circumstance.

This article was written by Alice Speri and Akela Lacy and originally published by The Intercept.

As the Coronavirus rips through jails and prisons across the country and pressure mounts on corrections departments to stave off disaster, federal, state, and local officials have begun to release some incarcerated people in an effort to reduce prison density and slow the spread of the virus. But in Louisiana, which has both the highest incarceration rate in the country and one of the worst virus outbreaks, officials are bucking the trend. Rather than release people, they plan to isolate those who test positive for the virus in two maximum-security state facilities — a plan that critics said amounts to creating death camps.

“The DOC plan to transfer people from across the state to Camp J — where there is no medical care, no hospitals, no access to lawyers — will be the moral stain on our country,” said Ben Cohen, of counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative. He’s been doing capital defense and civil rights work in New Orleans for 23 years, including several cases following Hurricane Katrina. “It is like the Japanese internment camps, but with body bags. We are literally watching the S.S. St. Louis being sent back to Germany.”

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

19 Lines: A Poem From Inside Angola

19 Lines
by Melvin Hassan Thornton

I inhale and I exhale
deep breaths of life,
each one refreshing the lungs.
Much work to be done; much life to live.
Still so much more to give. This is not the end.

Step on the scene, face to face with COVID-19;
staring in its heartless eyes, I stand firm.
Unflinching, unyielding, unafraid but angry.
I breathe deep, fighting on the ropes –
a bit overwhelmed but resilient. I don't fold.

Cowardly, Officious, Vicious, Insidious and Deadly 19,
you shall be defeated. We don't retreat.
We step up to the challenge.
Kill if you will but you have more to fight.
Those who survive will shine their lights.

I inhale then I exhale.
I take in the good and exhale the bad.
And therefore, Mr. Virus, I'm doing fine.
Sincerely yours, these 19 lines.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

A Prisoner Writes the Governor of Louisiana

This is the cemetery at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. There has been quiet talk -- inside and outside the walls in America -- of the possibility of mass graves. Will that happen at Angola? The prisoner who wrote this hopes not. 

It appears that America is finally starting to take this virus more seriously. Inside the walls, here at Angola, we are even more concerned. Earlier this week, an officer was sent into our unit with a high temperature. Two of our [jailhouse lawyers] had to be quarantined. But that doesn't help all of the men that went to court that day. Further, those who were quarantined are being held where other non-infected prisoners are quarantined for the ordinary flu.

These types of decisions have caused us to call for the immediate release of all prisoners currently serving time under the re-entry program and prisoners with 10 years or less to serve. We call for a review of the prisoners – violent or otherwise – who have spent 20 plus years in prison. Their records will identify those who can be released and have a place to go. This is a start for reducing the prison population, which was already in motion prior to the virus and is crucial in this crisis. It further serves the interest of the public because many of us have been trained in skills that can aid society in practical ways during this difficult time. But these releases need to begin now, as they have already begun – and are numbering in the thousands – in other states.

An Open Letter to Louisiana

Louisiana has long been recognized for having the most people incarcerated per capita than any other group of people on the planet or even in the history of the world. This is a dubious distinction at best and says far more about Louisiana’s culture than it does about those it incarcerates.

Even before COVID-19 emerged, decarceration as a concept was being discussed in virtually every state in our nation. One principle reason is that incarceration is far more expensive than sending people to college and it accomplishes far, far less toward our society’s best interests. In fact, Louisiana taxpayers spend on average twice as much on keeping a prisoner imprisoned ($25,000 per year) than they do educating a K-12 student ($12,500 per year) – which interestingly enough actually ensures in the long run more people going to prison for want of the skills necessary to access other options.

Books like Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration by Emily Bazelon demonstrate what prosecutors can do – and are doing – to address their own participation in sending too many to prison for too long, often unnecessarily and even when those charged are actually innocent.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections admits that they hold more than 7000 geriatric prisoners, the vast majority of which pose no realistic threat to public safety, while draining the Department’s coffers. In the last legislative session, many were surprised to hear about the case of one man who is costing the Department more than a million dollars per year in medical bills and was one of the reasons this year’s budget will need to be re-visited.

And now we have COVID-19 challenging every Louisiana citizen to consider new ways to approach our lives, few of which we could even have imagined two months ago. We are being encouraged, begged, even ordered and subsidized to practice new and necessary alternatives to business as usual. Yet we are ignoring the powder keg our prisons, jails, and detention centers have now become – at least partly because of our commitment to locking our citizens up at a rate and for periods at which other Americans can only shake their heads.

We need to take this opportunity (which may last longer than we might have hoped) to make the bold moves that could release funds badly needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic – inside and outside our prisons – by releasing every incarcerated citizen rationally possible and as immediately as can be arranged. Send home the geriatric and most physically vulnerable prisoners, those who were convicted of non-violent crimes, those who have done more than twenty years and demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation, those who will be getting out within a year anyway. Send them home.

Many of those in Angola – as one example – have prepared themselves for just such an opportunity by taking advantage of training in employable trades and programs that address the issues that brought them to prison in the first place. Releasing them would jump-start a new, more rational and less expensive way to live in community with each other in a world that is demanding our commitment to all Louisiana citizens at this difficult time.