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Judge: La.'s prison’s lockdown conditions violate inmates’ rights

The judge said inmates were exposed to “mental torture” and deprived of adequate mental healthcare


AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

By Jacqueline Derobertis
The Advocate

BATON ROUGE, La. — A federal judge has ruled that a Louisiana prison violated the constitutional rights of inmates held in extended lockdown by “exposing them to mental torture” and depriving them of adequate mental health care.

Western District of Louisiana Judge Elizabeth Foote wrote in a 165-page opinion that the conditions and practices in one wing of the David Wade Correctional Center in north Louisiana “constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” and that the prison system was “deliberately indifferent” to the inmates’ plight.

“The evidence shows that inmates are deprived of basic psychological needs through policies and practices related to social isolation, enforced idleness, severe mental deprivation, and indefinite exposure to such conditions,” she wrote.

That environment often caused “inmates even more pain and suffering, including the worsening of their mental illness,” Foote said.

Foote also found that there were systemic deficiencies in how the prison system addressed inmate mental health care, including screening and evaluations, adequate staffing, accurate record keeping and distribution of psychotropic medications, among other concerns.

David Wade is a maximum-security prison in Claiborne Parish that houses more than 1,200 inmates in Department of Corrections custody.

“We strongly disagree, but there are other pending cases so we can’t comment at this time,” said Ken Pastorick, DOC spokesperson.

In a 2018 lawsuit, DWCC inmates challenged the practice of extended lockdown at the facility’s South Compound. They claimed that inmates who suffered from mental illness were kept in inhumane conditions for months or years, all while the prison system neglected their mental health care.

“In their lawsuit, the men recounted stark and abusive conditions, including people with serious mental illness being housed for years on end in cells with virtually no mental health care,” according to a press release from Disability Rights Louisiana, which represented plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “When confined to cells for 23 or 24 hours per day, men with serious mental illness deteriorated to a point of screaming, talking to themselves and self-mutilation.”

Attorneys from Disability Rights Louisiana and the ACLU of Louisiana, supported by lawyers with the Promise of Justice Initiative and the law firms of Adams & Reese and Cohen Milstein, represented the plaintiffs in the case.

In January, the court heard four weeks of testimony and took evidence from the plaintiffs, prison staff and expert witnesses.

Foote concluded in her opinion that DWCC “utilizes extended lockdown as a depository for the mentally ill.”

She also found that the evidence presented at trial supported the inmates’ claim the facility violated the American Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, noting there are “no reasonable accommodations for inmates with mental illness in the extended lockdowns units at DWCC, nor are there reasonable accommodations related to discipline and the use of force on those with mental illness,” the opinion says.

“This victory on behalf of hundreds of men at David Wade is the result of six years of work by our clients who are incarcerated there, who refused to give up their rights, or the hope that things can be different,” said Melanie Bray, DRLA Assistant Legal Director and lead counsel.

The next step in litigation is the remedy phase of the lawsuit, which will assesses whether the prison system has continued to violate inmates’ constitutional rights and determine what should be done to address such violations. The trial is scheduled for January 17, 2023 and set to last 15 days.


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