NEW ORLEANS – Patients at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (“Angola”) needlessly suffer from serious injuries—including severe pain, preventable sickness, and untimely death—as a result of prison officials’ failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. They also failed to accommodate disabilities, a federal judge ruled today.
Civil rights lawyers filed the class action lawsuit, Lewis v. Cain, on behalf of the more than 6,000 people imprisoned at Angola in May of 2015. The ruling comes after several weeks of testimony in October 2018 before Federal District Court Judge Shelly K. Dick, months of lengthy post-trial briefing on behalf of both Plaintiffs and Defendants regarding the conditions in the 18,000-acre maximum-security prison, and a brief visit to the prison on February 5, 2020.
“This ruling today affirms what we have been saying for years, the men incarcerated at Angola have been subjected to completely inadequate medical care and discrimination based on their disabilities,” said Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative and co-lead counsel for Plaintiffs. “Going forward, prison officials will have to start fulfilling their constitutional obligation to provide adequate medical care and disability accommodations to everyone incarcerated there, no matter how young or old, healthy or sick.”
Judge Dick found the prison’s delivery of medical care to be constitutionally inadequate in numerous ways, focusing particularly on clinical care, specialty care, infirmary care, and emergency care. In her ruling, she noted that “overwhelming deficiencies in the medical leadership and administration of health care at LSP contributes to these constitutional violations.”
The Court also found that “Defendants have been aware of these deficiencies in the delivery of medical care at LSP for decades.”
Attorneys for Plaintiffs, The Promise of Justice Initiative, the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, Disability Rights LA, the ACLU of Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”), and attorney Jeffrey Dubner, fought hard for many years to achieve this victory. The decision in their favor is even more significant as Louisiana has the highest rate of prison deaths in the country.
“Today’s decision is an enormous win for everyone,” said Jeffrey Dubner, co-lead counsel for the Plaintiffs. “Providing people who are incarcerated with adequate health care not only affirms our basic dignity as human beings, but it reduces future costs to taxpayers and facilitates successful reentry into society.”
This victory is also particularly important considering Louisiana’s changing prison population.
“Louisiana has the highest percentage of its prison population serving life without the possibility of parole sentences in the United States,” said Nishi Kumar, Director of Civil Litigation at Promise of Justice of Initiative. “For years the average age of people in the prison has risen but the state has not appropriately changed its medical care to meet the consequences of its incarceration policies. Louisiana must start paying to meet the constitutional standard for medical care and disability access, or start looking for mechanisms to release older prisoners who pose no risk to the public.”
The judge also found that the prison was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, on behalf of a subclass of inmates with disabilities who are physically unable to access parts of the prison.
“What we have seen firsthand is that the abysmal conditions at Angola are especially harmful to our clients who have disabilities or mobility issues,” said Bruce Hamilton, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Louisiana. “They are systematically denied access to even the most basic accommodations and are prevented from accessing prison services and programming as a result of their disabilities. Now the Department of Corrections will have to make whatever changes are necessary to bring the prison into compliance with federal law.”
“Everything we found when we began investigating this case more than six years ago was occurring against the backdrop of Angola’s brutal history of slavery and convict leasing,” said Montagnes. “People were being forced out into the fields and into factories to work and were not being treated for their injuries and heat stroke. Men risk their lives at the prison rodeo every year, which generates millions of dollars in profits for the prison, and were not being treated for their broken bones. People were dying prematurely from treatable cancers. Now, we can tell our clients who have bravely been with us on this case since the beginning that things are finally going to change.”
The Promise of Justice Initiative
The Promise of Justice Initiative works to create positive change for people in the criminal legal system at the intersection of impact litigation, direct services and community