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La. Dept. of Corrections sued for use of solitary confinement for mentally ill

26th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

A lawsuit filed Feb. 20 in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge alleges that Louisiana Department of Corrections officials and employees at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer have subjected prisoners to cruel, harmful conditions that have either caused or exacerbated mental illnesses in inmates.

In addition, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit charge the DWCC with destroying evidence by unhooking the hard drives of the facility’s monitoring cameras to prevent alleged abuses from being filmed. One of the primary allegations in the federal class-action lawsuit – which was issued on behalf of prisoners at the David Wade Center by The Advocacy Center and the MacArthur Justice Center – centers on the practice of “extended lockdown,” in which prisoners are isolated in a single cell for at least 23 hours a day. 

The lockdown stays allegedly last weeks or even months, and the lawsuit alleges that such excessive isolation and sensory deprivation amounts to cruel and inhumane punishment, and can lead to the development of mental illnesses in prisoners. 

Another disturbing charge alleges that DWCC employees left the facility’s windows open during the severe cold snap last month, leaving prisoners in freezing conditions with minimal clothing. Overall, the lawsuit asserts that DWCC officials and employees have engaged in retaliation and excessive punishment against inmates with mental illness, including some who are suicidal. 

“We are working very hard on this case,” said Jonathan Trunnell, an attorney with The Advocacy Center. “We have been investigating this situation for more than nine months, and we feel we have very strong evidence supporting the allegations. We understand the seriousness of the allegations, and we look forward to proving them in court.”

The allegations are so graphic that DOC officials have taken the unusual step of commenting outright on the lawsuit.

“The Department doesn’t typically comment on pending lawsuits,” said Ken Pastorick, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. “How-ever, due to the outlandish nature of these claims, we’re inclined to refute the allegations as baseless claims with no merit. We look forward to our day in court.”

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Anthony Tellis and Bruce Charles, both currently imprisoned at DWCC. Tellis, who previously had no history of mental illness, reportedly developed auditory and visual hallucinations after a stay in extended lockdown, during which he was provided with no mental health resources.

The lawsuit charges that DWCC employees ignored Charles’ earlier diagnosis of bipolar disorder and his status on suicide watch and instead classified him as having no mental health issues, a situation allegedly leading to erratic fluctuations in his diagnosis and subsequent treatment. The lawsuit states that Charles has attempted suicide twice and been on suicide watch five times.

The legal action also describes the cases of other inmates, often in bleak, stark terms.

“Men at David Wade Correct-ional Center … are being held in extreme, abusive conditions,” states the class-action suit. “They are held in prolonged solitary confinement or extended lockdown for months and years, often unable to go outside for weeks on end. There is no external sensory stimulation – no television, no radio and little human contact. …

“These extreme conditions create mental illness, and exacerbate pre-existing mental illness, causing psychotic decompensation and propensity for acts of self-harm. Some people hear voices, or talk and scream to themselves. Some engage in cutting themselves and attempting suicide to escape the extreme conditions. … Others bang their heads against the walls. The people confined at David Wade are at immediate risk of harm without [court] intervention.

“… Once on extended lockdown, people with mental illness decompensate and symptoms become more severe. Staff then respond to symptoms of mental illness by using restraint chains on people in cells, chaining people to wooden restraint chairs, using chemical spray on people in cells, issuing additional write-ups or criminal charges, taking away outdoor time, moving prisoners to more extreme isolation, and taking away all clothing, reading material, and mattresses as punishment.”

Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley said the allegations in the lawsuit “is a series of horrors.”

“The prolonged solitary confinement described in the suit has been condemned by international human rights organizations as torture,” Quigley added. “Prisoners with mental illness are only seeing psychiatrists for 10 minutes every three to six months? It is no wonder people are banging their heads against walls and cutting themselves. I am confident the courts will put a very quick end to this.”

In addition to the allegations of abuse, the plaintiffs are seeking emergency relief for the destruction of evidence. The lawsuit charges that, during negotiations regarding the transfer of video recordings requested by the plaintiffs, DWCC employees disconnected the camera hard drives to prevent recordings in the areas involved in the lawsuit.

Named as plaintiffs in the action are James LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections; DWCC Warden Jerry Goodwin; Assistant Warden Deborah Dauzat; DWCC Col. Lonnie Nail; Dr. Gregory Seal, a contract psychiatrist at the facility; corrections program manager Steve Hayden; social services counselors Aerial Robinson and Johnie Adkins; and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

The effect of conditions such as extended lockdown, solitary confinement and similar conditions have come under scrutiny in recent years, with lawmakers proposal bans on or curtailment of such practices, and mental health advocates and legal experts weighing in on the potentially destructive impact of correctional isolation.

A March 2017 article by Dan Jackson and Nicholas Goldberg with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asserts, “Because prolonged solitary confinement causes mental illness, it is especially cruel and counterproductive to impose it on prisoners already suffering from mental illness …”

The article states in no uncertain terms that solitary confinement is unconstitutional.

“To put a prisoner in solitary confinement not only despite, but because of, mental illness and suicide risk is ‘perverse and unconscionable,’” the article states. “It is no excuse to claim that the rules against solitary confinement do not apply as long as the prisoner has contact with guards and occasional visits from lawyers, psychiatrists, and maybe others. The Supreme Court rejected that argument long ago. …

“… [T]here can be no excuse for the solitary confinement of a prisoner who, according to the prison officials themselves, is suffering from mental illness and at risk of committing suicide. Solitary confinement in such circumstances is ‘shocking and indecent.’”

This article originally published in the February 26, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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