When Inmates Sue, Are They on a Level Playing Field?

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Photo by Joe Gratz via Flickr

The neatly landscaped grounds of the David Wade Corrections Center near Homer, La., contain ornamental gardens and even a koi pond.

In a state which has been notorious for its high rate of incarceration, and for allegations of systematic prisoner abuse, the warden and staff at David Wade, a  facility that holds over 1,200 inmates, say they are committed to rehabilitation.

Although many prisoners are serving sentences of decades to life, they can participate in vocational education classes and faith-based workshops.

David Wade Correctional Center. Photo by Henrietta Wildsmith/Shreveport Times

A mental health department with five qualified professionals provides comprehensive evaluation, individual counseling, psychiatric consultation, and group therapy.

But a Shreveport Times  investigation, prodded by the escape of an inmate last summer, found the prison’s placid outward appearance hides a rate of prisoner lawsuits “significantly higher” than for other similarly sized institutions in the state.

More than 200 lawsuits have been filed by inmates at the sprawling prison since it opened in 1980—with more than half filed in the past five years, including 53 alleging “civil rights violations.”

Multiple suits cited specific problems about conditions in the facility’s extended disciplinary lockdown units, including a lack of mental health services, unnecessary use of chemical agents, overcrowding by double-bunking inmates and roach infestations.

One lawsuit alleged that inmates with disabilities were forced to bark like dogs for food.

However, most of the suits were dismissed.

Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, said the number of lawsuits at David Wade is not unusual, “based on the type of individuals housed there.”

“In general, it’s not unusual for any correctional facility in the United States to be sued by an inmate,” Pastorick said in an emailed statement to the newspaper.

Corrections officials argue that most such suits are “frivolous,” but advocates aren’t so sure.

Patricia Gilley, a lawyer with the Shreveport, La.-based firm Gilley & Gilley, agreed that “frivolous” lawsuits are often the result of inmates who “have nothing else to do.”

But Gilley, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of an inmate alleging brutality at the David Wade Correctional Center 15 years ago that was ultimately dismissed, also said the criminal justice system is difficult for inmates to navigate.

“The system is totally stacked against them, particularly against a person who is disenfranchised or a minority,” Gilley said. “It ends when they are sentenced. Then all they have is the jailhouse lawyer and their own wits.”

“A Tightly Run Ship”

Staff and inmates offer starkly different accounts of what goes on behind the imposing gray walls and barbed-wire fencing of the 1,500-acre facility.

Louisiana prison officials say it’s a “tightly run ship.”

Founded in 1980, the David Wade Correctional Center has grown from an original capacity of 650 minimum- to medium-custody offenders to a current operational capacity of 1,244 offenders — almost half of whom are considered “maximum custody offenders,” according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

Warden Jerry Goodwin, a tall man with steel-gray hair and a penchant for plaid suits, gave the Times a tour of the facility earlier this year — past courtyards in bloom, a pond filled with orange and white koi, a chapel with stained-glass windows, and a low-security dorm where several inmates played cards.

The prison received accreditation from the American Correctional Association’s Commission on Accreditation in 1992, the first state-operated facility to do so. Its accreditation has been renewed every three years since, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

In his statement to The Times, Pastorick wrote that new correctional officers at the prison undergo orientation training and existing staff receive annual in-service training that includes “mental health programs, recognizing suicide risk and suicide precautions.”

Pastorick said the escape of an inmate, which resulted in the death of an assistant warden’s teenage step-daughter, was an anomaly—the first escape from the facility since 2003.

The issues raised in (the) lawsuits, Pastorick said, are unfounded. The prison has specific policies to minimize situations requiring use of force and maximize safety of inmates, facility staff and the general public, he said.

But the Times’ litigation search found at least two settlements involving the facility in the past five years.

Nevertheless, the correctional center also is trailed by litigation alleging abuse of prisoners and multiple other civil rights violations.

According to Pastorick, the number of lawsuits filed for David Wade is comparable, per capita, to the number involving the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, which is another facility he said that houses the “same type of inmates, with a large number serving life sentences.”

The Louisiana State Penitentiary had 1,772 lawsuits since 1980.

“We would estimate the majority of lawsuits are frivolous,” Pastorick said, using an adjective used in the court system to generally mean a lawsuit that has no legal merit.

“We estimate a very small percentage result in an award of damages against the Department.”

Inside David Wade Correctional Center. Photo by Patricia Highsmith/Shreveport Times

On July 20, the Advocacy Center, a New Orleans-based non-profit that advocates for people with disabilities, filed a federal lawsuit against state prison officials concerning David Wade Correctional Center, one week before the prison escape that resulted in the death of an assistant warden’s step-daughter and the escapee.

The center’s lawsuit alleged David Wade staff had slapped, punched, kicked and sprayed disabled inmates with bleach, and forced prisoners to bark like dogs to be fed.

It also alleged that prison staff had interfered with Advocacy Center investigators who had sought access to the prison and its inmates.

Advocacy Center investigators and an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center, acting as an authorized agent for the Advocacy Center, said they had received “alarming reports of serious abuse of people with disabilities” from inmates in the prison’s lockdown units, prompting concern that disabled inmates were “being subjected to abuse and neglect.”

Among their concerns were allegations that prison staff:

  • Failed to screen inmates for mental illness and provide adequate mental health treatment.
  • Placed inmates with mental illness in extended solitary and segregated confinement.
  • Forced inmates to kneel or bend on all fours and bark like dogs to receive food.
  • Forced at least one inmate with a developmental disability to unclog toilets by hand.
  • Treated mental health complaints as disciplinary infractions.
  • Sprayed prisoners with mace and bleach.
  • Confined inmates for extended periods using physical restraints, including a restraint chair.
  • Slapped, punched and kicked prisoners with both developmental disabilities and mental illnesses.
  • Verbally abused inmates, including name-calling and cursing them.

Louisiana state prisons must, as a condition of receiving federal funding, “designate a protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities,” the Advocacy Center says. Its investigators also had the right under federal law to inspect the facility and talk with inmates, the suit says.

But when the investigators arrived, Warden Goodwin informed them that “the tour of the unit would be very brief because they would not be allowed to speak to any prisoners on the tiers,” according to the lawsuit.

Investigators set dates for two separate site investigations. David Wade staff “unlawfully and intentionally interfered” with both investigations, according to court documents.

Prison staff were instructed not to answer questions and refused to allow investigators to look at a cell equipped with a surveillance camera, an empty cell in the lockdown unit and the inmate recreation yard, the Advocacy Center alleged. Investigators also noticed inmates being moved off a cell tier when they entered, including an individual they specifically wanted to interview.

Staff also impeded one-on-one follow-up interviews with inmates, “confiscated prisoner’s (sic) legal documents, blocked prisoners from bringing notes to interviews and intimidated participants in those interviews,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that prison staff also “took positions close enough to eavesdrop on the confidential conversations between the prisoners and counsel.”

On the second day of interviewing prisoners, Advocacy Center investigators were informed that a prisoner who had shared information with them “was disciplined for doing so,” according to the lawsuit.

The Advocacy Center and the Department of Corrections reached a settlement on August 10.

The settlement agreement, filed in U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, did not involve cash payments, but clarified how Advocacy Center investigators could access the facility and its inmates.

Under the 23-page settlement, the Advocacy Center will have access to the prison, inmates, prisoner and prison records and staff.

The settlement also notes that investigators who wish to speak with inmates through their cell doors must do so when DWCC staff are present and that investigators’ time on cell tiers will be limited to 10 minutes “unless a longer period of time is approved.”

‘Barbaric and Inhumane Conditions’

Many of the more than 200 lawsuits since 1982 were hand-written. They usually reflected their inmate-authors’ lack of legal training. Many reflected rudimentary language skills.

But one especially coherent 44-page, handwritten lawsuit, filed in 2013, painted a different picture. The lawsuit named 21 inmates as plaintiffs, including Robert Baltimore, and 20 David Wade Correctional Center employees, often identified by position rather than by name, as defendants.

“Quite often, inmates at David Wade Correctional Center in extended lockdown are victims of unchecked or unrestrained physical abuse and sometimes sexual abuse at the hands of unprofessional and sadistic male guards,” the lawsuit alleges.

“(They are) subjected to some of the most barbaric and inhumane living conditions today in the modernized prison system.”

The lawsuit also alleged that inmates in lockdown were double bunked with “enemies”; some lockdown units lacked ventilation, fans and water fountains; drinking water was brown or orange; prison staff sprayed chemically agents excessively; mentally ill inmates were slapped and punched; and food serving areas in the units had roach infestations.

Besides the Baltimore settlement, a remaining 52 civil rights violations lawsuits filed in the last five years involving David Wade Correctional Center were dismissed by courts for a number of reasons — including that judges deemed them “frivolous.”

Examples include lawsuits filed by inmates who alleged:

  • An inmate developed a rash after allegedly being forced to shower without slippers.
  • An inmate slipped in the shower and was told by a nurse to take Tylenol and then waited “two months” to see a doctor.
  • An inmate was jumped by another inmate, allegedly planned by a  correctional officer
  • An inmate was left in his cell after asking to be put in a restraining chair while considering suicide due to “demons” in his mind

According to Patricia Gilley, lawsuits logged in the federal system often start as cases involving state convictions that inmates want overturned.

“The majority of them will involve state charges with defendants looking to say they had a crappy lawyer or no adequate council,” Gilley said.

“You have to go back to the inception of this, where they get assigned a public defender — some of whom are useless, some of whom are excellent — but who are so overworked they might have five minutes with a client.”

Katie Schwartzmann, a MacArthur Justice Center attorney involved with the Advocacy Center investigation, said “very few” lawyers will handle prison cases. She said courts must take seriously the lawsuits that inmates file themselves.

“They can be hard to read or understand, but it is very important that someone at the courthouse take the time to thoughtfully review and try to understand the claim being asserted,” Schwartzmann said. “Usually the court is a prisoner’s only avenue for protection.”

Schwartzmann said inmate cases often are dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with the merits of the inmate’s claim.

“Meaning,” she said, “someone’s rights may well have been violated, but they are unable to win in the court system because of a procedural hurdle.”

According to the Times’ review of the lawsuits, judges dismissed inmate cases for four other main reasons: inmates asked for their cases to be dropped, sometimes because they’re frustrated at the lack of movement in their cases; inmates failed to “state a claim for which relief may be granted”; inmates failed to submit a lawsuit on an approved form; or inmates failed to pay the $350 filing fee.

This is an edited and condensed version of a story published earlier this month in the Shreveport Times. Staff writer Lex Talamo is a 2017 John Jay/Measures for Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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