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.
It is common knowledge that Louisiana has always demonstrated a fixation with locking up its citizens, long enjoying the dubious distinction of incarcerating more of its citizens per capita than any other society now or in history. That this had ultimately become embarrassing on some level was unexpectedly acknowledged when the State voters elected a Governor in 2015 who had campaigned at least partly on the commitment to lower the number of prisoners held. That this would also lower the tax payer dollars necessary to run the Department of Public Safety and Corrections was the cherry on top and a strong incentive for a state that falls at the bottom or near the bottom of every list comparing it to other states on such factors as the economy, education, opportunity, and quality of life.
Louisiana taxpayers spend more keeping a prisoner incarcerated ($16K+ per year, using 2015 figures and if you want newer ones, good luck) than they do educating a K-12 student ($12K 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. Additionally, Louisiana uses the Life Without Parole option at four times the national average, allowing dirty cops, White Supremacy, aggressive plea bargaining, and prosecutorial misconduct to sucker-punch poverty-stricken Black youth who are often barely literate and have inadequate legal representation into being a burden on the taxpayers for life.
After the election, Governor John Bel Edwards followed through on his promises. By 2018, legislative reforms driven by the Governor and public fatigue with the bottom line reduced the overall prison population by 7.6% for a savings of $12.2M, 70 percent of which was earmarked to support victims and reduce recidivism. But by FY 2019, the Department was back on top of the national statistics for numbers inside the walls and its budget was back up to $592M. In fact, just before COVID-19 took over the mass media in America, the Governor had gone to the legislature for an additional $34M to get the DPSC to July.
The Department admits 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. Yet neither the Governor nor the public seem able to perceive the lose-lose situation this has created for the state and for these men and their families.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a Dante’s Inferno-style scenario descended on us all, including those whose lives are difficult even on a good day. As schools and businesses closed and a frightened population moved toward quarantine, those who work to change the way American culture approaches criminal justice are striving to energize a new focus on those in the prisons, jails, and detention centers where human beings are locked in place – and not in a good way. Some of those people have agreed to express their concerns by relaying anonymously what they have heard from inside the walls at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
There are 6,300 men at Angola, an institution stretching across 18,000 acres that has been a penitentiary for 118 years. Two miles south of the border with Mississippi on the banks of the river with the same name, it isn’t on the way to anywhere.
Men – mostly Black – have been working that ground since 1870 when a Confederate Major named Samuel James started leasing convicts from the State of Louisiana, just seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation dried up his plantation workforce. It was a successful enterprise until James died in 1894, leaving it in the hands of men who watched more than a hundred convicts die every year until the State finally felt the need to step in and take it over in 1901.
Today, the Louisiana DPSC tries to call Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States, a “gated community.” Hundreds of guards and other staff live on the property with their families, some of whom have worked at the institution for generations, enjoying all the amenities of a rural Louisiana town, complete with churches, restaurants, and recreational facilities – even a golf course.
But in 2012, Angola absorbed a thousand additional prisoners without additional staff being hired. This influx initiated an on-going set of problems resulting from a badly-aging and over-stressed infrastructure, over-crowding that increased tension levels to the breaking point, and under-staffing so endemic that it has lowered standards in both hiring and job performance. In fact, administrators have admitted that there were at least 400 unfilled positions at the institution even before the present crisis that has staff quitting or just not showing up at unprecedented rates.
Insiders on the staff at Angola who choose to remain anonymous say that matters became even worse after Burl Cain, who served as Head Warden at the prison for 21 years, resigned in 2016 in a whirlwind of allegations that he had crossed numerous legal and ethical lines during his tenure. With 70% of the prisoners at Angola doing life without parole, some of them know a great deal about the underbelly of the institution. They have to in order to survive. And survive they do, most of the time.
As recently as March 8th, Angola prisoners were still enjoying regular visits with family members and friends in Building A at the institution. There was some talk, they say, about the Corona virus and how that could affect their future visits, but no one guessed there would be no more for an undetermined period of time. In just a few days, the announcement was made. There would be no more visits for at least a month and possibly longer.
“Those of us who’ve been here a while,” said one prisoner, “have experienced lockdowns for all kinds of reasons. Usually it produces increased tensions inside because we count on visits to help us do our time. But this time, it was different. If a visitor brought the virus into Angola, we could all wind up dead. And we knew it.”
“We were more worried about our families than we were about ourselves right at first,” wrote another in an email. “It took a couple of weeks before we started thinking and talking about the danger we were going to be in when a guard brought COVID-19 inside. The way the administration deals with everything else, we knew we were going to be screwed.”
It’s not as though problems didn’t already exist. The entry level pay for front line Corrections Officer Cadets at Angola is $14 per hour, which is why guards can be hired without a high school diploma or GED as long as they are 18 years of age and have a year’s work experience in any kind of job. And half of the guards at the institution are women. So allegations of sexual harassment of women COs by ranking officers who are men often make the rounds of institutional gossip resulting in transfers from one part of the institution to another. The administration simply cannot afford to fire employees when they are already badly short-handed. Besides, Angola covers more ground than Manhattan. There’s plenty of room to move people around.
There are other issues, as well, with having a plethora of young women interfacing with thousands of male prisoners, many of whom have been locked up for decades by the time they are forty years old and don’t expect ever to leave. So something that will send a prisoner to the “dungeon” one day may be ignored – or even encouraged – on another. And rivalry for attention inside this “gated community” is not especially different from rivalries in any other setting where 8,000 people live out their daily lives, often in close proximity. Even the occasional fist fight can occur between young women vying for a prisoner’s attention, though administrators quickly chalk things like that up to “rumor,” along with anything else that doesn’t fit stated policy.
The gap between practice and policy can be substantial. For example, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, mandating that every state must demonstrate its commitment to zero tolerance of rape inside its correctional facilities, was signed into law in 2003. Louisiana’s 48-page Field Operations Manual (dated June 28, 2013) is available to the public online and posters offering an 800-number expressly for reporting rapes appear in prominent places in every prison in the state. Unfortunately, prisoners – and no one knows this better than they do – cannot call an 800-number from inside the walls.
Further, an effort to identify what actual steps exist to address rape inside Angola resulted in a response that prisoners can report rapes to a warden (making them a “snitch” to other prisoners and therefore worthy of death). Asked what the prisoner could do in the case of a prison staff member being reported as the perpetrator, the only option offered was to write an Administrative Remedy Procedure (grievance report) that could result ultimately (a very long time later) in a court suit for a civil rights violation – assuming that the A.R.P. didn’t wind up in someone’s trash can and/or result in retribution.
Administrators of large organizations, companies, or institutions are expected to protect by any means necessary what they see as the interests of the enterprise for which they are responsible. But in the case of a prison, the nature of the enterprise lends itself to practices that sometimes wind up in the courts under an allegation of “cruel and unusual” punishment. Indeed, it has been argued that, while it is possible to be a seasoned professional in the corrections field with a commitment to ethics, justice, and rehabilitation, it is also not uncommon for prison personnel at every level – all the way to the top – to hide or even perpetrate routine miscarriages of justice and then deny it under a blanket use of terms such as “necessity” or “rumor.” Who’s going to believe a man convicted of a crime anyway – assuming he can even be heard?
The mass media in Louisiana does what it can to present what is going on inside the walls and has even earned some awards for doing so. Yet a culture of silence has resulted from a long-standing history of corruption, a well-documented level of nepotism throughout the DPSC, and the disinterest of the mass public who until two years ago were comfortable sending men – especially Black men – to Angola for very long periods of time on the basis of a jury decision wherein two of the jurors were not convinced of their guilt. The effectiveness of Angola’s culture of silence was demonstrated in the Spring of 2019 when “rumor” had it that no less than fifteen prisoners were stabbed in three weeks (five in one day by a man struggling with schizophrenia) without a single mention in the mainstream press.
These problematic issues are not peculiar to Angola. Those who read Prison Legal News, a 70-page monthly digest that outlines such things in specific detail, know that excessive force using unfathomable amounts of chemical agents that are not even supposed to be used indoors and never directly onto an individual is routine almost everywhere. Beatings by guards so brutal – for cause or without it – that the victim may not ever fully recover, assuming they live through them, are de rigueur. And those who enter prisons with mental health problems (since beds in prisons and jails now constitute the bulk of mental health beds in America) are often impossible to separate from the rest of the prison population, which exacerbates their issues and adds to those of other incarcerated citizens who may or may not have come into institutions with similar problems, but certainly develop them over time.
A detailed accounting of who composes the medical and psychiatric staff at Angola would likely turn up a disappointing array of lackluster at best and dangerous at worst individuals since insiders and prisoners alike note that the prison has been forced in desperation to hire professionals who have either lost their licenses or had their records compromised in some other way before they came to Angola. Apparently, this is not illegal as long as it is known at the time of the hiring.
And this is the team that is now facing and will be charged with the duty of dealing with the rampant onslaught of COVID-19 inside. This is the team that will decide whether or not a prisoner will be tested, whether and how he will be treated, and whether or not he is presumed able to survive or should simply be triaged into a condemned and contaminated corner to die. This is the team that will report to the Governor and the public what the administrators want them to hear.
Even before there were any admitted cases inside Angola, emails and phone calls from prisoners to their outside supporters became troubled. The DPSC was calmly assuring the public and the Governor’s office that they were handing out hand sanitizer to the prisoners and engaging in a more rigorous than usual routine of cleaning surfaces throughout the prison with disinfectant cleaners. But the men locked in the institution were reporting that none of that was true. They not only were not being given these life-saving products, they were told when they asked for them that there were none. “Rumor” had it, hand sanitizer was being sold on the B-Line (where staff who live at Angola and prisoners with the money to do so can shop).
After reading CDC directives that hand sanitizer is simply a less effective substitute for soap of any kind, one prisoners' rights organization asked some of their contacts inside if they had soap. Some did, some didn’t. But more to the point there were indigent prisoners throughout the institution, particularly those who were in Administrative Segregation (called the “dungeon” by the prisoners) where prisoners might be locked down without their property as punishment for one reason or another. So they sent in money to buy soap. Organizers inside bought the bars, broke them in half, and handed out the chunks until there were no more. One prisoner put a bar of soap by every faucet in his unit, writing, “You wouldn’t believe it. Even the gangstahs are washing their hands.”
Early reports during the week of March 16th still contained the usual problems: showers flooding so badly the water ran down the tiers and never fully dried and backed up toilets never addressed even though the smell and the dangerously unhygienic conditions were repeatedly reported. Complaints of vermin and mold that give prisoners rashes and make them cough. Meal trays that are never fully clean and that have food placed on them while they still have water standing in the compartments, so that the dirt and the water and the food mix and leave men hungry because they can’t bring themselves or are even afraid to eat it.
But other, even more concerning issues, were beginning to come out.
One prisoner reported an entire month of symptoms without treatment, but instead of just being angry, he was afraid and couldn’t get a medical person even to look at him. A dorm known as “the handicapped dorm” was prepped for quarantine. Units in various parts of the prison began locking down, filled with 86 “older” prisoners in each with only 6 toilets, 5 showers, and no information. “Rumors” referred to prisoners brought in from a jail in a parish already overrun with COVID-19 and going straight into quarantine in E-block, a unit that had been condemned long ago – badly contaminated by mold and notorious for its infestation of vermin – was now suddenly inhabited.
One prisoner sent out a 13-page Preliminary Injunction asking for relief for his fellow prisoners at Angola since the Governor had by then mandated the 6-foot social distancing rule state-wide. And the prisoners in Angola agreed that pretending a 6-foot social distancing policy could exist in a place where two grown men were forced to live in single-man cells was ludicrous.
“They painted lines at the chow hall so we’ll stand 6 feet apart,” wrote one prisoner. “Yet they will be feeding two dorms at a time. With 86 people in each dorm, that means 172 people are let out to go to the kitchen at once. We can't sit at a social distance. It’s just not possible.”
“I understand that they’re trying to do something,” wrote another, “or make it appear that they’re doing something, but we’re in a dangerous position and they’re not making it better. I expect this out of them though. This is the only prison in the world that still does a Black and White count. If you’re Mexican, Asian or Indian, you're counted as White. How crazy is that?”
By the end of March, it became apparent that any semblance of normality would soon be lost.
“The Medical Dorms are all locked down,” one man reported. “There haven't been hospital call-outs for a few days. The traffic to the hospital is shut down or limited. The men who usually go there to get their insulin shots have it brought to them. However, we are still in danger. The virus is here and we have no way of social distancing, period. It cannot work and we can't do anything to save ourselves.”
Twenty-four hours later, the messages became even bleaker.
“The latest update,” said one. “is that somehow a case showed up in one of the Medical dorms. The dorm was locked down but still somehow got sick. We’ve been placed on lockdown, too. I saw it coming so I had already put a [legal] petition together that asks for a cut down in people per dorm, social distancing of 6 feet, and whatever other measures would ensure the least amount of spreading.”
“I'm going to call my mother and encourage her to bring a wrongful death suit if I don’t make it through,” wrote another man. “I practice civil law so I am going to spend my lockdown writing all the information down for her. They should have acted. According to the World Health Organization, closing us all in only strengthens the virus.”
One frustrated man finding resolve wrote, “At this point, what we need is masks, ventilators, places to quarantine. But they don't have what is needed. It is now a matter of who is strong enough to fight it off.” What he couldn’t know was that, earlier that afternoon, at a Zoom meeting of prisoners' rights advocates who have the ear of the powers-that-be and vice versa, the point was made that the DPSC has already said it won’t bring ventilators into Angola at all.
“The Plan,” they say, is to take prisoners who need a ventilator to the nearest hospital with an open bed and the necessary equipment. But as Louisiana rapidly becomes the fastest growing hotspot for COVID-19, incarcerated citizens waiting for open beds and ventilators may wait in vain.
The latest news is that increasing numbers of “freemen” (what guards are called at Angola) are being asked to leave because they are now experiencing symptoms of the virus. Others just don’t show up at all. The Main Prison’s E-block is still being used for prisoners who are assumed to have succumbed to the virus without being tested and “rumors” say it is already full. Camp J, another unit in the institution that has been condemned and empty for years, is also being used to quarantine those presumed to have contracted COVID-19.
According to prisoner reports, most of the guards are not wearing masks and don’t appear to think the masks are important. Medical staff has stopped making routine rounds despite the increase of symptoms in the population. So there is no processing of sick calls for further screening and no reporting of COVID-19 cases, even though prisoners in dorms, units, and camps further out on the property are all being reported as showing signs of infection. More than twenty in the mental health unit are reported sick.
One email reported: “Sixteen prisoners from two units were placed in Investigative Segregation after they refused to go to the fields to work. They claimed that with more than 100 men in the field, going to work would place them at risk for contracting COVID-19. They were asking that their right to invoke social distancing be granted. Yet officials refused to hear their cries.”
As the prisoners at Angola resist to survive and continue to seek relief in the courts, they are also beseeching the Governor of Louisiana, who has now called for fasting and prayer.
They write: “We 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.
“The fact is: the spread of COVID-19 is becoming rampant and the death toll could be high. Louisiana is likely to be impacted in a major way. We call on you to make an expedient decision as visiting has been suspended and for God knows how long. There is no Facetime. So prisoners and their families are cut off almost completely from each other. If people are to die, let families be together. Let them not die without mercy, separated in a time of crisis. How can we ask God for mercy and not practice it in our own dealings with one another?
“We call for immediate change in the face of potential devastation and immediate action in this crisis. Some of us are the last of our bloodline. If we die, so does our lineage. We are petitioning the immediate release of the most qualified prisoners and an open mind to ascertaining others that might ultimately be added to that list. We cannot be protected inside these walls. And sentencing already incarcerated men to death by virus will add to the indictments for which history will hold you and the State of Louisiana responsible.”