Outcome of high-stakes case will impact at least 6,000 people whose medical needs are being severely neglected at Louisiana State Penitentiary
BATON ROUGE – The serious lack of medical care at the Louisiana State Penitentiary – including failure to properly diagnose and treat patients, unacceptable delays in treatment, and an insufficient number of qualified nurses and doctors – is unconstitutionally inadequate and jeopardizes the lives of people who are incarcerated at the prison commonly called Angola, according to a federal class action lawsuit that goes to trial today.
The lawsuit, which was filed against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections in May 2015, describes the medical care provided at the Louisiana State Penitentiary – also known as Angola – as fundamentally and grossly deficient, and far below constitutional and statutory requirements. The inadequate health care at Angola has contributed to the fact that Louisiana has the highest rate of prison deaths per capita in the country.
A federal judge certified the class action on behalf of all the men incarcerated at Angola in February. The outcome of the case will affect the lives of at least 6,000 people at the prison. The plaintiffs are represented by The Promise of Justice Initiative, the ACLU of Louisiana, Advocacy Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll and attorney Jeffrey Dubner.
"After decades of neglect and ignored complaints, the people incarcerated at Angola were left with no choice but to seek the help of the courts. People are suffering. People are dying. It is our sincerest hope that this suit will ensure that the state of Louisiana treats all its people with basic decency and in accordance with the Constitution. The only thing the patients at Angola are seeking in this suit is access to basic healthcare, which they can receive in no other way than through the state,” said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative and lead counsel on the case.
Bruce Hamilton, staff attorney for ACLU of Louisiana echoed Montagnes when he said: “People don’t stop being human once the cell door closes behind them. Louisiana must do better; its citizens expect and deserve a government that upholds fundamental human rights. No judge would ever sentence someone to slow torture by an untreated medical condition, but, in effect, that is what is happening every single day in Louisiana. This legal action is the only way to fix this glaring failure."
"These abysmal conditions have been especially harmful to people with disabilities, who have been systematically denied access to even the most basic accommodations as required by law," said Jeffrey Dubner, co-lead counsel on the case. "We’re asking the court to order prison officials to stop endangering people’s lives and start fulfilling their obligation to provide adequate medical care and disability accommodations to the people at Angola."
Angola – the nation’s largest maximum-security prison – is violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” by neglecting the serious medical needs of people incarcerated there, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit also claims that Angola is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, on behalf of incarcerated people with mobility issues who are physically unable to access parts of the prison.
“People incarcerated at Angola have suffered from permanent injury and even death as a result of prison officials’ chronic failure to provide adequate medical care,” said Jamila Johnson, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC. “This includes, among other deficiencies, prison officials’ withholding of a drug that is highly effective in treating Hepatitis C – a potentially deadly disease that disproportionately affects people in prison – just because prison officials do not want to pay the cost of the drug. These unsafe, inhumane and unconstitutional levels of treatment harm people during their incarceration, hamper their reentry into society, and violate the U.S. Constitution as well as federal law. We are asking the court to order prison officials to stop endangering people’s lives, and to start fulfilling their obligation to provide adequate medical care and disability accommodations to incarcerated people at Angola.”
People incarcerated at Angola have reported horror story after horror story, according to the lawsuit. They include a man who was denied medical attention four times during a stroke, leaving him blind and paralyzed; a man who was denied access to a specialist for four years while his throat cancer advanced; and a blind man who was denied a cane for 16 years.
Several of the plaintiffs have passed away since the case was filed, due in significant part to unconstitutional care. For example, Shannon Hurd, who was serving a life sentence for the robbery of $14, submitted sick call requests for years for symptoms of renal cancer, but was not tested until late 2015, by which time his cancer had fatally metastasized. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 42. His family is expected to attend the trial.
Plaintiff Alton Adams, who suffers from artery disease, began having problems with his right leg after arriving at Angola. He was told that he needed a stent to address his circulation problem. Instead, he developed a blood clot that led to the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Since then, he has had two more amputations that have brought his leg down to the mid-thigh. He is now having problems that could lead to an amputation of his left leg, too. A visiting doctor from New Orleans said he could not believe that Angola staff had missed the obvious infection that led to the amputations, which could have been avoided. Adams is expected to be present in the Courtroom.
Farrell Sampier, another plaintiff, who suffers from paralysis from a non-fatal disease, is expected to testify about the lack of adequate medical care and his time spent in hospice while at Angola.
# # #
The Promise of Justice Initiative is a private, non-profit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform and abolition of the death penalty on behalf of indigent defendants and prisoners who seek fair and equal treatment under the law.
The Advocacy Center of Louisiana is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to assisting people with disabilities and seniors in Louisiana to achieve maximum potential and independence. The Advocacy Center of Louisiana employs 50 people statewide who assist people to achieve employment, education, housing, and health care goals.
The American Civil Liberties Foundation of Louisiana has been Louisiana’s guardian of liberty since 1956, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.
Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC has been a pioneer in class action lawsuits on behalf of individuals and small businesses for over 40 years. It has over 90 attorneys with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Raleigh, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org.