The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Louisiana is designed to hold approximately 1,600 individuals. There are more than 1,200 people currently imprisoned there—even after community efforts to free as many as possible. Notably, the overwhelming majority of people (89 percent) are held in pre-trial detention and are presumed innocent, with only some on work release or serving sentences with the Department of Corrections. Because of this, it is more commonly referred to as a jail than as a prison.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison has been in a state of emergency long before the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2012-2016, 25 men died at the jail, making it one of the deadliest facilities in Louisiana and the country. These deaths brought to light the deplorable conditions in the prison and the profound lack of adequate mental health and medical care to address the needs of those in its custody. In 2017, the City contracted with CorrectHealth for $5.3 million dollars a year to oversee the prison's healthcare. However, the situation inside the prison worsened under CorrectHealth's management: between January 2017 and June 2019, there were 17 deaths. In two years, the for-profit contractor increased the mortality rate by 36 percent and earned a quarter-of-a-million-dollar profit annually at the same time. Nevertheless, the City of Baton Rouge/Parish of East Baton Rouge continues to contract with CorrectHealth.
The longstanding life-threatening challenges in medical care at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison are exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Louisiana is one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic, and East Baton Rouge Parish has not been spared. A mass outbreak in the jail would further strain the limited resources of Louisiana's healthcare. However, despite warnings, parish officials have taken few steps to implement standard protective measures to prevent an outbreak. Instead, individuals who have tested positive or exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 have been transferred to punitive, solitary confinement areas of the jail that were reopened after being condemned in 2018 due to safety concerns. In the rest of the jail, individuals are unable to socially distance from one another and are not given regular access to protective gear, personal hygiene and cleaning supplies, and medical care.
Individuals locked inside the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison are fighting for recognition of their humanity and for survival. The majority of those confined are Black, poor, and medically vulnerable. The Advancement Project National Office, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Fair Fight Initiative, Hogan Lovells LLP, and local civil rights attorneys filed Belton v. Gautreaux against the sheriff of East Baton Rouge, the warden of the jail, and the City of Baton Rouge/Parish of East Baton Rouge. The litigation supports the demands of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, community members, local advocacy groups, and those imprisoned and their families. This class-action lawsuit argues that the inhumane conditions at the jail are unconstitutional, and urges a federal judge to release medically vulnerable individuals and order the defendants to adopt comprehensive measures to protect the safety and health of the people inside the jail.
Clifton Belton is 60 years old and is being held in pretrial detention in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison because he does not have enough money to make his $15,000 bond. Mr. Belton suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes, and congestive heart failure. Prior to his confinement, he had part of his right foot amputated and has fluid in his legs, rendering him largely confined to a wheelchair. He has had four open-heart surgeries within the last year, and a buildup of fluid around his heart caused him to flatline twice on April 15, 2019.
Because of his severe medical conditions, he has been housed in the facility's infirmary. According to Mr. Belton, the conditions in the infirmary are "nasty. Gnats fly all over, water is pooled on the floor, and it is just dirty and unsanitary. There is no buzzer or call button to get staff in case of an emergency, and we have to bang on the door to get any help. We share everything—toilets, showers, and the air with the other rooms in the infirmary. The jail does not regularly wipe down all of the shared areas that we touch with disinfectant and there is no pressurized room to reduce the spread of the coronavirus."
His exposure to others with the virus resulted in his contracting COVID-19 in early May. Mr. Belton remarked on how people are being moved around within the jail during the pandemic: "It is crazy how they are doing this... It seems like they keep recycling the sick people with the folks who do not have the virus and re-infecting people." He has had difficulty breathing since testing positive, and even though he has been told he no longer has the virus, he continues to have trouble breathing, in addition to his other medical conditions.
Mr. Belton wrote a letter to a federal judge in early May because he felt like he had nowhere else to turn to for help. He expressed his fear of dying in the jail because of his medical condition: "I don't have any charges that would expose me to the death sentence, so I ask...why is the system putting my life on the line?" If released, Mr. Belton would check himself into a rehabilitative care facility and get the medical support he needs.
Willie Shepherd is 38 years old and currently in pretrial detention in the jail where he has been since February 2020. He suffers from high blood pressure and has had a bleeding ulcer since 2012.
He is currently confined on the Q3 line of the jail. There are about 45 people housed in the line right now, but it can hold up to 80 individuals. It is an open dorm-style area and all the beds are in the same room and are no more than 3 feet apart from each other. "We can touch the next bed from our bed," he says. In the day room, "the benches, chairs, and tables are bolted to the ground, so we can't move them away from other people in the room. We can't socially distance on the line, especially if you're sitting in the day room."
In mid-April, he suffered from a headache and body aches, so he called the medical staff. He never had a temperature, though the nurses eventually tested him for COVID-19 anyway two days later. Mr. Shepherd was left on his line while he was exhibiting symptoms, and then moved to solitary confinement after being tested, but before the test results came back that he was COVID-19 positive.
"We didn't get any real medical care on B3...I don't know why they moved us if they weren't going to do anything for us but give us Tylenol and vitamins. A few people couldn't breathe back there, and I was worried about what would happen to them if they needed medical care," he said. One day, Mr. Shepherd was throwing up blood. It took five hours for a nurse to get there to check on him. He didn't receive any medical treatment that day, and the nurse didn't come back to check on him after her initial, brief visit.
Placement in solitary confinement has negatively impacted Mr. Shepherd's court case. He missed two court dates because he wasn't allowed to leave during lockdown, even though the guards were supposed to bring him to the court. "If they had, I would have been home by now," Mr. Shepherd said, because he would have pled guilty and gotten credit for time served. He's heard that other people are missing their court dates because of the quarantine throughout the jail, too.
Mr. Shepherd was in lockdown for about three weeks before the guards moved him back to Q3-4, which was still considered quarantined when he got there. The men are not allowed to move around the facility or go outside. He reports that some of the men there are sick, likely with coronavirus, but they don't tell the medical staff out of fear of being sent to lockdown. Mr. Shepherd tries to clean the space around his bed every day and night but can only use a broom and mop that the guards have to bring in. All 45 people on his housing line have to share the five showers and toilets. The showers have mold and are not cleaned by the guards.
"When I am released back to the community, I plan to go back to Minnesota or somewhere else where there's snow, like Wisconsin, Syracuse, or Montana, after my criminal case is resolved. I want to settle down. In the community, I would be able to stay away from people who are sick and buy myself alcohol-based cleaning supplies. I would also have access to clean water, healthy food, and medical care of my choice if I needed it."
Christopher Rogers is 29 years old and is currently detained in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. He has already served more time than his charges carry, but he remains imprisoned because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In mid-April, Mr. Rogers reported symptoms to a nurse, but the medical staff didn't do anything because they said that no one else had tested positive for COVID-19 in his area. He was left for days with a bad headache and body aches, and he submitted a medical request to get his temperature checked. When Mr. Rogers had a temperature, he was moved to lockdown in line B3 of the jail before his test results came back positive for COVID-19 a few days later.
"B3 is in part of the old building in the prison that was closed before the coronavirus hit because it was filled with mold and rats. I was never allowed to leave the B3 line. I couldn't go outside, get any rec time, or get my own food. We had no way to talk to anyone else in the prison, except for the other guys on B3. We were basically just left back there. There were some windows on B3, but we could barely see out of them. They were on a catwalk outside of our cells. We didn't get to see much of the outside world on B3."
Mr. Rogers reports extremely unsanitary conditions in B3. The guards never clean the halls, and only sometimes bring cleaning supplies effective against the virus for the men to clean their own cells. The showers, which all the men in his line had to share, were filthy and had only cold water. There was mold on the shower mat and the shower itself was rusted.
Mr. Rogers's family put money in his commissary account so he could purchase personal hygiene supplies and food, but he was not able to receive items in lockdown. He and the other men isolated there didn't have access to a TV, and the guards didn't provide them with any information about what was going on in the world, or how to protect themselves from coronavirus. Their primary source of information came from family calls.
Mr. Rogers said that it was stressful to be in B3 because the men were bored, isolated, and didn't know what was happening. They were also surrounded by older people in bad conditions. "One man was really sick. We would bring him water when we could, but it was depressing and stressful to watch him struggle. I have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and being on B3 was making me more depressed and stressed."
Mr. Rogers was constantly afraid that he would get sick again because he continued to be held with people who were ill. He wrote to the medical unit about the fact that he was not given medical care for non-coronavirus needs. They never responded to his requests: "I felt like I couldn't get the medical care I needed and that we were being left back there to see if we would die."
Mr. Rogers filed a grievance about the men not having access to disinfectant to clean their cells and common areas in lockdown. Subsequently, the deputy involved in the grievance confronted Mr. Rogers, questioned him aggressively about the grievance, and shoved him into the wall. Mr. Rogers never received an official response to his grievance.
On May 8, Mr. Rogers left lockdown and returned to his F5 line, where he says the conditions are not much better. The area is hot and dirty; it is impossible for the men to be six feet apart from each other at all times; the eating area is covered with food particles and doesn't get cleaned regularly; there are many rats, and he has to sleep with his commissary items in bed so the rats don't eat them; and there is so much dirt on the windows that he and his other linemates can't even see out of them. Mr. Rogers also reports that one man who was COVID-19 positive was transferred out of lockdown and back to his line.
The guards did not permit Mr. Rogers to attend his court date on May 13, where he would have pled to time served, and so he remains detained. When he is released, he plans to quarantine with friends until his test results come back negative. Then he will move home with his mother and family members who rely on him to provide financial support. "I know they really need me out there."
Joseph WIlliams is 21 years old and is in pretrial detention at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. He was confined on the F5 line, a large dorm-style space with two dozen people in one bedroom. In late April, the nurses checked his temperature and noticed that it was high, and he was told to pack up to head to "isolation" even though he hadn't yet tested positive for coronavirus. Mr. Williams was subsequently sent to the area known as B3, which is where the solitary confinement cells are, and an area of the jail that was previously shuttered. There, with two other men, he shared a small cell, which has two sets of bunk beds, a toilet, and sink. It is impossible for Mr. Williams to stay six feet apart from his cellmates. On April 27, 2020, three days after he was moved to lockdown, the charges against Mr. Williams were dropped. However, he remains in lockdown because of a parole hold.
"We're locked in our cells all day. It feels like we're on lockdown, even though we haven't done anything wrong."
He has tested positive for coronavirus, which he believes he contracted in lockdown. Mr. Williams shares stories of non-responsive and negligent guards and medical staff. In one instance, he had chest and stomach pains and was throwing up. A linemate tried to get him medical care by banging on the door for 20-30 minutes to get the attention of the guards, but no one responded. He called his aunt for help, and she and several family members had to reach out to the warden of the jail so that Mr. Williams could get medical attention.
"I have asked the guards to bring me grievance forms, but they won't do it. I keep asking, and I got into it with a guard about the forms. He kept saying that he didn't have any and needed to make copies. I never got any copies," Mr. Williams said.
If he is released, he will stay at his mother's house where he has his own room and can quarantine safely, if he needs to. "I should be home, but I'm stuck here."