BATON ROUGE (CN) – A class action claims death-row inmates at Louisiana’s Angola prison are subjected to solitary confinement regardless of their behavior, a violation of their human and constitutional rights.
In a complaint filed in the Middle District of Louisiana on Wednesday, the three lead plaintiffs challenge the “cruel and baseless placement of prisoners who are in prolonged and complete isolation on death row.”
They say they are “subjected to indefinite extreme isolation, devoid of mental stimulation and having only sporadic human interaction.”
One prisoner said that once placed in isolation he only comes into contact with another human being when he is placed in shackles before the one hour a day he is let out of his cell.
Louisiana State Penitentiary is located on the former site of a plantation, on a remote 18,000 acres near the Mississippi Louisiana- border. It is enclosed on three sides by the Mississippi River, and was long ago nicknamed “Angola” after the country that most of the slaves on the former plantation came from.
It is the largest maximum security prison in the United States, and more than 70 prisoners are currently on its death row.
Death row inmates at Angola are confined for 23 hours a day in small, windowless cells.
“The harsh repercussions of prolonged isolation are well-known among mental health experts, physicians and human rights experts in the United States and around the world. It is agreed that solitary confinement puts prisoners at risk of substantial physical, mental and emotional harm. Research has shown that prolonged solitary confinement results in heightened levels of anxiety, chronic depression and sensitivity to stimuli,” the complaint says.
In recent years, leaders in the United States and in other parts of the world have condemned the use of solitary confinement as inhumane, the lawsuit says.
“These dehumanizing conditions are detrimental to the Class Members and have caused them severe and irreversible physical and psychological harm,” the complaint continues. “Over time, these Class Members have slowly lost their cognitive capacities and ability to communicate effectively. Additionally, any pre-existing mental health illnesses of the Class Members have been exacerbated by the isolated confinement,” and yet, Angola continues its practice of long-term isolation for prisoners sentenced to death for their criminal convictions.”
The lawsuit points to a 2016 report conducted by the Justice Department that recommends the use of solitary confinement only when “it serves a specific penal purpose and when accompanied by regular review by a multi-disciplinary committee.”
Another recommendation, issued by the United Nations in 2015, says solitary confinement should be used in only the direst of situations and should go on for no more than 15 days.
“Contrary to these recommendations,” the lawsuit says, prisoners at Angola “have been held in solitary confinement for decades without any rational justification and without being afforded any process or mechanism to address their confinement or to rectify the harm it has inflicted on them.”
The three lead plaintiffs have been in solitary for 25 to 31 years.
Plaintiff Marcus Hamilton, 56, has spent the last 25 years in solitary confinement.
Hamilton “has observed how prisoners change after years on the row. He has seen formerly articulate prisoners slowly lose their mind and their ability to hold logical conversations and interact with others,” the lawsuit says.
Prisoners on death row are not given the chance to challenge their placement there, the lawsuit says.
Angola has 10 outdoor pens for death row inmates, who are let out three times per week for one hour.
Exercise, work to earn money, and arts and crafts are not allowed in solitary confinement, and prisoners who already suffer from mental illness tend to only get worse.
Plaintiff Winthrop “Earl” Eaton has been in solitary confinement for the past thirty years. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been deemed incompetent to be executed. Eaton spends the majority of his time alone in his cell watching television, the lawsuit says.
Plaintiff Michael Perry, who has been in solitary confinement for 31 years, has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and has been deemed incompetent to be executed. Solitary confinement has worsened his mental state.
Aside from taking antipsychotic medication, he isn’t receiving any mental health treatment. Perry’s ability to communicate is extremely limited. His speech is mostly nonsensical, and his comprehension is very low. Perry suffers from hallucinations and psychosis and is unable to hold a productive conversation. Because of this, he is “ignored by the prison guards,” the lawsuit says.
A spokesman for the prison said in a phone call the agency can’t comment on pending litigation.
Betsy Ginsberg, an attorney in New York who represents some of the plaintiffs, told the Associated Press that other states have far less restrictive conditions for inmates on death row.
“I do think there has been a shift in how we as a country think about isolation of prisoners,” said Ginsberg, director of the Cardozo Civil Rights Clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.
Nicholas Trenticosta, the attorney in New Orleans who filed the lawsuit, told the AP the case is the first of its kind to be filed at Angola. Pieter Van Tol, of Hogan Lovells US LLP of New York, is also representing the plaintiffs.
In 2013, a separate group of inmates filed a lawsuit challenging what they said were dangerous heat levels on death row.
A federal judge ruled in their favor, and ordered prison officials to use new, low-tech heat remediation measures.
The class plaintiffs in the current case seek an injunction that would release them from solitary confinement, in addition to regular physical and mental health checks and compensation for the years spent in solitary confinement, including punitive and nominal damages.