Desperate Louisiana Prisoners Say Wardens, Staff Not Following Coronavirus Rules
Editor’s note: Many of the women interviewed for this story requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. They said they are worried about what would happen to their loved ones on the inside for their speaking out or revealing their correspondence. This story originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
The last will and testament came in an email, one most likely monitored by the state. It came from a prisoner, incarcerated for decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. He composed and sent it shortly after the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) opened a shuttered camp previously notorious for being a site of solitary confinement and violence.
The facility is called Camp J. As the specter of the coronavirus pandemic became impossible to ignore, the authorities designated it as a quarantine center. A COVID-19 clearinghouse for anyone detained in the state’s vast criminal justice system. His correspondence is one of many offering a look inside Louisiana prisons as the pandemic spreads not just the virus, but fear, anxiety and despair on the inside.
Above: Wendy West Matherne and other members of Voice of the Experienced, a grassroots organization dedicated to prison reform in Louisiana, delivered N95 masks to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Facebook photo by Wendy West Matherne
When he drafted his will, the prisoner said protocols were not being observed. Inmates had no masks; guards wore theirs cavalierly around their neck. Guards had gloves but did not change them. They weren’t social distancing. Inmates were still going to the cafeteria where everyone would reach into a shared container to get their cutlery.
Some inmates had deputized themselves to be the “COVID Police,” doing their best to sanitize what they could with meager cleaning supplies. One grandfather was using bleach that he had been watering down to stretch out its use.
“I can go on and on about our healthcare here in Angola but now is not the time,” wrote one inmate at Angola who had received a life sentence decades ago as a juvenile. “I don’t want to scar anyone but if that is what it takes to get you to understand me, then you well have understood what I about to say. There is no doubt we are vonrabull to corona-19 and I feel that if it becomes loss in this environment we’re in trouble, probably wiping out ¼ of this population if not more.”
The correspondence with loved ones shows an anxiety creeping through the prison like nothing anyone had ever seen before, family members said, even during the height of hurricane season. That’s when a single biblical storm can flood the Mississippi River, wash away the levees around Angola and inundate the 5,500 inmates.
That dread of the virus and officials’ response is so palpable that it led one inmate to make arrangements for his death. When his fiancee opened the email and realized what it was she nearly collapsed. It summoned the pain of dealing with her mother’s will after she died a year ago.
“It is difficult to read,” she said. “It was a very emotional deal.”
The will laid out what you’d expect. He was of sound mind and sound body. Who gets what when he dies. A few final thoughts.
“He said a few words to his mom, and a few words to his kids. And a few words to me. It was very,” she paused to gather herself. “It was like him saying it and not being here. He’s,” and she went silent again to collect herself, “he’s a very strong person, and very healthy, thank God. But with this pandemic. It is what it is. He just wants to make sure that he’s not one of those that he dies today and they bury him tomorrow.”
And since he knew his correspondence was being monitored by censors, he wanted it on the record.
She said there was one thing he was very clear about. He wrote: “I don’t want to be cremated or buried on the grounds of Angola.”
‘This is a medical and moral problem’
Since he wrote his will nearly a month ago, things have happened. DOC has said they have redoubled their efforts to get personal protective equipment to staff and to prisoners. Gov. Jon Bel Edwards created a panel to review cases in an attempt to thin the prison population and increase the likelihood of social distancing on the inside.
“The entire Department is focused on minimizing the potential impact of this disease on our correctional system. We understand that this is a very trying time for everyone in Louisiana including our employees, prison population and their loved ones,” said James LeBlanc, the DOC secretary, in a press release. “We are making every effort to ensure that inmates in our state prisons are informed and able to remain connected to their loved ones throughout this time.”
But the correspondence with family and loved ones paint a different picture. The exchanges — between sister and brother, mother and son, boyfriend and girlfriend — capture the anxiety and desperation of the prisoners, and the frustration of loved ones who are helpless to do anything.
“They are not being transparent,” said one woman with a loved one in the inside. “What the governor and the DOC is saying is happening is not matching up with what is coming from the inside.” What they are reading has left them wondering when urgent, meaningful action will be taken. Some are pleas like this one from a son at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center to his mother:
“DO NOT STOP CALLING UP HERE…AND TELL THESE PEOPLE YOU ARE GONNA HAVE AN ATTORNEY AND THE NEWS PEOPLE AT THE FRONT GATE. PLUS, DON’T JUST LET THEM TELL YOU ANYTHING. MAKE THEM GET A WARDEN WHERE WE ARE, SINCE NOT ONE HAS BEEN TO THIS BUILDING SINCE WE HAVE BEEN REFUGEED IN HERE, AND GET HIM TO CALL U ON HIS PHONE SO U CAN HEAR FROM ME IF I AM OKAY!! I AIN’T PLAYING!!”
Others, like this one from a man sentenced to life as a juvenile at Angola to his sister, show the prisoner’s frustration at how rules are being haphazardly implemented if at all. And they suggest how the strain is wearing on them.
“I’m tired of these dumb ass people, people who are supposed to be in control and to sit here and watch them make such bad choice’s with the lives of everyone including their own,” he wrote. “I know it’s not the DOC, It’s the people here the wardons an Col [colonels]. And I also know that there is nothing I can do about it but it doesn’t stop the anger from injustices taking place.”
These digital letters-in-a-bottle being tossed from behind the bars show the urgency to do more to get inmates out, their loved ones say, especially the medically vulnerable and the elderly. Angola alone has a population of thousands of incarcerated men over 50.
Coronavirus-inspired violence broke out at the state’s main juvenile facility last week. Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Deputies had to be called in to quell the disturbance at Bridge City Center for Youth, which had similarities to an incident at a youth facility in New York City around the same time. Youth driven by fear of the virus spreading also escaped from the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, La., earlier this month.
Left: Wendy West Matherne
“The parents of juveniles in the system are horrified,” said Wendy West Matherne, a member of Voice of the Experienced, a grassroots organization of the family of the incarcerated dedicated to prison reform in Louisiana. “They just want their children to come home. They want to be the one to care for and take care of their children. They sit by the phone and they wait.”
A letter from a prisoner in Angola talked about different security teams doing things differently, such as leaving the door open in his dorm when it’s time to eat or go to the yard for recreation. With the door open, other prisoners could come in, risking the spread of the virus.
“This practice must stop immediately if LSP Staff is serious about stopping the spread of covid-19. I have personally addressed this problem to ranking officials, but each gives the expression of “I AM NOT CONCERN,”” he wrote. “This is a medical and moral problem that must be addressed now before more lives are lost to this deadly virus.”
‘Belly of the beast’
Prisoners are at the mercy of guards who are still not abiding by the regulations laid out by state officials, loved ones said. In some cases they are being ignored, in other cases they are impossible to put into place in dorms like Angola where men live on top of one another.
Over the past month, since Camp J was reopened, COVID-19 has spread through the facility as well as other jails and prisons in the state.
“Baton Rouge is giving directives, but by the time it gets to those guards that are in the dorms, in the facilities, in the belly of the beast, it’s nothing,” said the woman who received the will from her fiance. “And most of the guards don’t care. ‘They are all there for a reason,’ some of them think.”
Camp J is now at capacity with sick people, loved ones said. The sick are now being moved to the chapel, to Camp A.
All the efforts to furlough is a mirage, they said. Even if everyone laid out in the criteria governing the panel’s decision-making were released, they said, it would only lower the state’s prison population — the largest in the country — by a single inmate per facility. They feel betrayed by a governor who they campaigned for.
“Our government has abandoned our incarcerated population,” Matherne said. She is the mother of a son who has what is effectively a life sentence. She and other members of VOTE delivered N95 masks to DOC.
“We’re trying to keep our loved ones safe. They are reviewing less than 1% of the population for release. Many are infected and a few lives have needlessly been lost, including persons awaiting release. The situation is disheartening. Our loved ones are struggling to stay safe.”
The problem is particularly challenging in Louisiana where the emphasis on releasing prisoners has been on nonviolent offenders. Louisiana has more prisoners serving life without parole sentences than anywhere else in the country, a relic of what critics call draconian laws passed in 1979.
Nearly 15% of the state’s prison population won’t leave until they are carried out in a body bag. More than half of those are people charged with second-degree murder. Of the 51% in for life, half were imprisoned when they were younger than 25. Three-quarters of them are black, even though black people are only one-third of the state’s population.
One man sentenced to life as a juvenile in Angola said it was hard for people taking the pandemic seriously to keep their spirits up.
“I have to be honest with you, It’s getting hard being couped up like this, I’m doing my best to stay busy and on top of my cleaning,” he wrote. “I’ve been doing a lot of sleeping but noticed some depression setting in, I don’t need that right now. Everything is a struggle, to go on the yard, to go to the store, to go to eat.”
‘Try to find the beauty in all of this’
Stephanie Smith is a pastor, like her fiance, and the father of her oldest daughter, now 31. Her fiance is a pastor inside Angola who runs the Believers Builders Worship. As part of his ministry he works with people who are in the prison’s reentry program. He said he is doing his best to counsel them during this difficult time.
Smith said she has fielded calls from numerous family members with loved ones on the inside. Sometimes she gives them concrete advice, other times, she just stays on the phone and prays. During the calls, Smith said family members have shared that their loved ones are so consumed with pandemic anxiety that they are overdosing on mojo, a synthetic marijuana, and heroin. Smith also says they have told her that in some cases, the guards aren't doing anything to stop it.
“It’s a despair and despairing that reaches down into their souls,” she said. “The kind of despair that makes you want to fall to your knees and shout out and scream and cry. Can you imagine the level of helplessness you need to feel to do that? That helplessness is everywhere right now.”
The prisoner in Angola who drafted his coronavirus will felt that helplessness. His fiance had to call his mother to let her know what her son’s final requests were. She told her what her son’s arrangements were for his death. They both cried as she read it to her. They formulated a plan in case something happened.
“If I don’t hear from him for a few days, well then, I let her know,” she said. “Then his mom calls up there and finds out where he is or what happend, She doesn’t mess around. She’ll call over there and insist you better find him.”
If they discover the worst then they know from the will what to do.
The same couldn’t be said for Lloyd Meyers. Meyers, 69, was transported to Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in Baton Rouge when he had symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. He did not have any family left on the outside. He signed a Do Not Resuscitate order and died on the evening of April 19. After he died, they drove his body back to where he spent most of his life. He is interred on the grounds of Angola.
The man writing to his sister was friends with the most recent prisoner to die of COVID-19. He updated her about how he was coping with the general uncertainty:
“Well I’m trying my best to not let all of this bother me but nothing good can come out of a bunch of guys couped up in a dorm twenty two hours a day,” he said. “Stay safe and try to find the beauty in all of this. I do know this, people will realize not to take the simple things in life for granted, being able to be next to the ones you love.”