It’s the day after Christmas and for most Americans, it’s another peaceful day to spend with family. Many are back in work although the week between Christmas and New Years Eve is usually more relaxed. For tens of thousands of inmates, it’s just another day in prison.
Unless a loved one is in jail, we typically don’t pay much attention to what goes on inside America’s jails, lock-ups and prisons. And that is why medical care is so bad at these facilities. Out of sight, out of mind.
Some jails are worse than others and Louisiana has a reputation for being at the rock bottom by every measure. What makes it even worse is that Louisiana locks up more people than any other state and this in a country that locks up more people than any other developed country.
Louisiana: America’s Highest Incarceration Rate
Let’s start with some simple demographics. According to the just released federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. In fact, it was an article in the New Orleans Times Picayune today that gave me the idea to research the state’s incarceration history.
I got my start as both a prosecutor and a police officer in New Orleans. That was many years ago and even then, the state had a huge prison population. With a three strikes law, it didn’t take much for a young man (or woman) to find himself behind bars for life. Back then, the “contest” for highest incarceration rate seemed to be between Mississippi and Louisiana. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a contest that anyone should be proud to win.
Fast forward a few decades and Louisiana is still at the bottom of the heap.
Prison Healthcare Spending in Louisiana
Not only does Louisiana send more people to prison than any other state, it spends less per inmate on health care than anyone else. A 2017 survey by the Pew Foundation found that while several states spent more than $10,000 per year per inmate on healthcare, Louisiana was at the rock bottom spending just $1,396.
What does that mean? If you are unlucky enough to be sent to prison in Louisiana it just may be a death sentence. You better not get sick there.
Orleans Parish Prison
One of the biggest county lock ups in the nation is also one of the worst. Welcome to the Orleans Parish Prison. It’s important to know that most people at “OPP” are awaiting trial. According to our Constitution, those folks are innocent until proven guilty.
During Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of inmates were simply abandoned by guards as flood waters rose. While there was no excuse for that, conditions at OPP are always bad. Mother Jones labeled the Orleans Parish Prison as one of the worst jails in America.
We have all heard about bad doctors and bad hospitals. As a consumer you have a choice where you receive healthcare. If you are arrested, you lose that freedom of choice.
According to Mother Jones,
“Almost half of all prisoners at OPP are pretrial, accused but not convicted of crimes. Yet a stint here can be a de facto death sentence. According to investigations by the Justice Department, in the past two years, at least two inmates have managed to kill themselves while on suicide watch—one of them by stuffing toilet paper into his mouth until he suffocated. A third died while being held in five-point restraints. A fourth was found dead after allegedly being beaten and pepper sprayed. Prisoners also say that the guards supply them with drugs, and will often stand by during a melee and let inmates fight themselves bloody, according to a criminal defense attorney…”
Lest you think that is simply the opinion of a couple journalists, the Department of Justice has even stronger words for the facility. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said conditions were “alarming.” “OPP is a violent and dangerous institution [with] widespread sexual assaults” and “is deliberately indifferent to prisoners with serious medical and mental health needs.”
These aren’t just statistics. Real people are dying and they aren’t most aren’t armed career criminals or murderers. In May 2018, Kentrell Hurst was booked into OPP after being arrested for allegedly shoplifting $56 of items from a New Orleans store. She was dead two days later.
Her family says that when she was booked into the jail, she complained to medical staff that she was sick and suffering from abdominal pain. They say no once checked her vitals or brought her to a hospital. She died in excruciating pain in a cell.
Healthcare at OPP is contracted out to a private company. That is the way it is today in most jails and prisons. Healthcare is now awarded to the lowest bidder. In New Orleans the vendor responsible for inmate healthcare at the time of Kentrell’s death was Correct Care Solutions (also known as Wellcare).
Kentrell isn’t the only one to die in OPP. In fact, there have been many unnecessary deaths.
In October 2017, 32 year old Narada Mealey was arrested for unpaid court costs stemming from a previous marijuana possession charge. (The original charge involved less than 2 grams of pot.) Two days later he was also dead. His family says that jailers and prison medical staff ignored his pleas for help.
Apparently, there were no beds available when Mealey was booked into the jail. If he wanted to lay down it was on the cold concrete floor. Family members say that he too repeatedly complained that he was suffering from severe abdominal pain.
How does the family know all of this? They say Narada called from the jail and told them he thought he was dying. Sadly, he was right. By the time he was brought to the hospital it was too late. He had lapsed into a coma and died a couple days later. He leaves behind four kids.
Federal monitors assigned to oversee conditions at the jail said that a year after Narada’s death Correct Care Solutions still needed to make “substantial improvements.”
The city’s unofficial slogan is “the city that care forgot.” When it comes to city jails, we think it should be called “the city that forgot to care.” Unfortunately, state prisons are just as bad.
Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola)
Enough about the poor conditions of parish jails and lock-ups. The Louisiana State Penitentiary (locally known as Angola) is no better.
Angola has the dubious distinction of being the largest maximum security prison in the country. This in a state with the lowest spending on healthcare.
Located on a former slave plantation, most of the inmates are black and inmates continue to operate the facility as a plantation. The optics are terrible as are conditions at the prison.
Working outside in 100 degree heat and high humidity is no easy task. Just like in the days of slavery, armed guards still patrol on horseback.
The medical care received by inmates is so bad that even the state department of corrections doesn’t try to say that inmates receive good healthcare. According to their website, the “goal” of the Department of Corrections is to “provide constitutionally acceptable levels of health care that reflect community care standards and operate in an efficient and cost-effective manner.”
Constitutionally acceptable healthcare? We aren’t even sure what that means but the ACLU has been claiming for years that medical care received by Angola inmates is unconstitutional.
One inmate, 44 year old Shannon Hurd, says that beginning in 2010 he complained about extreme pain in his side. Over the next five years he continued to complain but prison medical staff dismissed his complaints as “gas.” He dropped 100 lbs, the pain and numbness spread and five years later when he was finally given a CT scan doctors discovered he now had stage 4 cancer in his kidneys and lungs.
Another inmate said he had artery disease in his right leg but was told the prison could not afford a stent procedure. Now part of his leg has been amputated and the arterial disease has spread to his other leg.
Both men will tell you the care they received at Angola is inhumane.
The standard for inmate healthcare is already low. For sentenced inmates, the applicable standard is cruel and unusual punishment. Unfortunately, we think that many Louisiana prisons and jails are providing medical care that is extremely cruel and doesn’t meet constitutional standards.
How Do I Sue a Prison or Jail in Louisiana?
If you or a loved one dies or suffered from poor medical care while in jail, the first question usually is, “Can I Sue a Prison or Prison Healthcare Company?” The answer is yes but it’s not easy.
Finding a lawyer to take these cases is difficult. Many people believe that prisons today are a “country club.” We defy anyone to find a prison in Louisiana that even remotely resembles a country club. That attitude, however, often makes it difficult to get jurors to agree on whether an inmate has a valid claim against a jail or jailer.
The tough “law and order” attitude prevalent in the deep South is also an impediment. No one wants crime in their neighborhood but treating criminals and those awaiting trial as animals has no place in civilized society.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to successful jail injury and death cases, however, is the law itself. Louisiana gets away with spending so little on medical care for inmates because the standards for prison healthcare are so low.
So how do you sue a Louisiana prison or jail? By finding the right lawyer!
The average personal injury lawyer won’t take a case against a prison or parish jail. Mere negligence isn’t enough in jail medical cases, especially for inmates serving a sentence. (Pretrial detainees have more rights under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution than those inmates already serving a sentence.)
Our prison jail death and injury lawyers (and those of our national network) understand the law and know what is needed to win these cases. We also understand the frustration of trying to get answers and justice. The frustrations are just as great for family members on the outside who frequently are given little if any information.
Our knowledge extends to jail suicide cases and about those who have died because they were denied proper care while detoxing.
Another unique feature of jail injury cases involves proving a pattern, practice or policy of neglect by the agency or private jail medical company. This takes both experience and a deep investigation. Many lawyers simply don’t have that experience.
If you or a loved one has been seriously injured in a prison or died because of inhumane medical care, we can help. We file federal civil rights lawsuits against prisons, jails and private prison healthcare companies. You and your family may be entitled to financial compensation. CALL US 866.836.4684 or Connect Online to learn your rights. You can also visit our jail death and injury FAQ page to learn more.
[Photo from the Louisiana ACLU. The ACLU has a long running class action suit to improve healthcare for inmates at Angola]