A judge has ordered federal oversight of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, saying the prison has continued to violate inmates’ constitutional rights by systematically ignoring their medical needs — despite the court’s ruling officials must fix the problem.
The federal court will appoint three “special masters” to develop remedial plans to address the violations and monitor whether they are being followed, court records show.
It is only the latest time in the past few decades when U.S. courts and federal civil rights investigators have directly intervened at Louisiana’s infamous high-security prison, which has been at the center of a multitude of lawsuits and sharply critical reports by outside agencies.
In a 104-page opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick blasted prison officials for “the callous and wanton disregard for the medical care of inmates at Angola,” noting the prison had been the subject of criticism regarding inmate health care since at least 1989.
Dick’s ruling describes inmates dying of preventable diseases and suffering pain from treatable illnesses while staff refused treatment or ignored symptoms.
“The human cost…is unspeakable,” Dick wrote. “The finding is that the ‘care’ is not care at all, but abhorrent cruel and unusual punishment that violates the United States Constitution.”
Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the state department of corrections, said in a statement the agency “strongly disagrees with the court’s opinion in this matter,” noting since litigation began in 2015 the prison has “continued to improve health care at the facility.”
“As evidenced by the recent 2020 pandemic, LSP has managed the healthcare and treatment of its population efficiently and effectively when compared to the community in general,” Pastorick said. “The court has refused to even consider current conditions at the facility in rendering its opinion. LDOC plans to appeal this ruling and based on all of these improvements believes that it will be reversed on appeal.”
In 2021, Dick ruled corrections officials had been “deliberately indifferent” to the medical needs of Angola inmates. She found that inmate access to health care is unconstitutionally inadequate in the areas of clinical care, specialty care, infirmary care and emergency care.
A year later, lawyers for those incarcerated at Angola argued in a two-week remedy trial that little had changed since the judge’s ruling. The prison “made some changes during the pendency of this litigation,” but ultimately “defends its health care system and denies that it was constitutionally deficient at any time,” Dick wrote.
Following what Dick characterized as a “fruitless” effort for the inmates’ attorneys and prison officials to find common ground or settle any issues they could, the judge has deemed injunctive relief necessary.
“Your humanity does not stop at the prison gate,” said Mercedes Montagnes, who was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs at the time of trial. “This Court’s ruling underscores the value in every life and holds our state accountable for its failure to protect patients.”
‘Cruel and unusual punishment’
Attorneys have been pushing for Dick’s ruling for years.
After the initial class action lawsuit was filed in 2015, Dick ruled in 2021 that Angola’s medical care violates the Constitution. Now, reviewing a fresh sample of inmates’ cases, Dick has found the state is still violating their rights.
In one such case, a 50-year-old man made seven requests — all unanswered — for medical attention for escalating back pain. When medics finally evaluated him, he was found lying on the floor, the opinion says, and died within hours after seeing a doctor. His autopsy showed he was suffering from a large liver abscess and resulting spinal cord compression.
Another inmate experienced two years of abdominal pain and weight loss, which were ignored and untreated, the opinion says. He was ultimately hospitalized and diagnosed with advanced stage colon cancer, leading to “a preventable death.”
A separate case described a 65-year-old man with a history of diabetes, severe coronary artery disease and heart failure who showed dangerous symptoms seven times in one month: fevers as high as 103.6 degrees, an altered mental state and complaints of chest tightness, the opinion says. While in an altered mental state with a high fever, he was confined to a “locked room” in the infirmary at one point and was not seen by a doctor for three days.
Although he was found vomiting in his cell two days after he was discharged from the infirmary, Angola doctors ordered EMTs not to take the man to the hospital; he died in his cell the next day, the opinion says.
The bulk of Dick’s opinion details a litany of such cases, describing how medical care went wrong years after the lawsuit initially identified a problem in the prison’s system of treatment.
She notes the prison’s doctors appear to have “dismissed out of hand” her ruling on the constitutional violations, claiming “nothing is wrong with their policies and procedures.” Where change has occurred, she suggests leaders have applied a “Band-Aid” approach rather than systemwide.
“The record is replete with instances showing failure by Defendants to take the necessary steps to provide access or avoid delay in access to medical and health care,” Dick wrote. “The continued deficient medical leadership, administration, and organizational structure underpins the constitutionally deficient system of health care.”
Jeffrey Dubner, legal director for Democracy Forward and co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, excoriated officials for taking so long to fix known problems while people “suffered needlessly from treatable conditions.”
“This ruling is a win for the rule of law, an important step toward ensuring constitutional care for all those imprisoned in Angola,” he said.
Not a first for federal oversight
Angola has a long history of federal intervention in its health care system.
Back in 1971, a special master was appointed over a lawsuit filed by Angola inmate Hayes Williams alleging poor prison conditions, including inadequate medical care.
A 1984 lawsuit argued Angola inmates with mental illness were mistreated, leading to a consent decree several years later. But soon after the parties entered into the agreement, inmates’ attorneys contended prison officials were dragging their feet and violating court orders by failing to set up an agreed-upon mental health program.
Those lawyers cited a damning 1991 U.S. Department of Justice report that found prison officials punished inmates with mental problems by isolating them in single cells and confined them in a cellblock for 24 hours a day.
In Dick’s Monday opinion, the judge provides her own list of cases dating back decades in which the feds had to step in to ensure compliance, describing a powerful pattern of resistance from corrections officials.
She also references the DOJ report published in 1991, noting the investigation began in 1989 and found “multiple conditions at Angola deprived inmates of their constitutional rights, among them the failure to provide adequate medical and psychiatric care.”
A 1992 class action lawsuit alleged health care at the prison violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, leading the DOJ to intervene in the suit to join in the allegations against Angola.
Dick also noted that in 2009, the corrections department hired a third-party consultant to assess medical care at Angola. While not a federal entity, the outside auditor found multiple medical care deficiencies, which Angola disputes, the opinion says.
“All this is to say that the health care of inmates at Angola has been the subject of consternation and criticism since 1989,” she wrote.
The three special masters will include a physician, a nurse or nurse practitioner and someone with knowledge and expertise in handicap and disability access and accommodations, according to Dick’s remedial order.
In addition to appointing three special masters, the order requires a remedial plan for the prison to include a medical care plan and an Americans with Disabilities Act plan, with strict guidelines on cooperation giving the special masters extensive access to the prison’s records.
Dick’s order outlines how quickly the special masters should report to the court with their plans and what monitoring of the rollouts will look like. She also saddles prison officials with “all costs associated with the work and reporting” of the special masters.
Samantha Bosalavage, a staff attorney at the Promise of Justice Initiative and counsel on the case, said in a statement that the it has taken eight long years to find relief for her clients.
“The Court has set out a clear and logical path to remedying the violations, and our clients look forward to finally receiving the health care to which they have always been entitled,” she said. “This legal victory validates the humanity of the thousands of incarcerated men at Angola.”
Source : The Advocate