At Angola Prison, Getting Sick Can Be a Death Sentence

A 6-month investigation into the largest maximum-security state prison in the country.

Katie Rose Quandt and James Ridgeway December 20, 2016

At Villa Feliciana Medical Complex in Jackson, La., Francis Brauner awaits surgery to close 11-year-old open wounds—treatment he says he was denied for a decade at Angola prison. (PHOTO BY CHARLES ANTHONY SMITH)

ON A HOT DAY THIS AUGUST, Fran­cis Brauner, 51, wheels his chair through the halls of the Vil­la Feli­ciana Med­ical Com­plex, a state-run nurs­ing facil­i­ty in Jack­son, La. Love bugs, cling­ing togeth­er in pairs, swarm on the complex’s low-slung brick build­ings. Brauner has just learned his pro­tein lev­els are too low to pro­ceed with the surgery sched­uled for the fol­low­ing week, and he is try­ing to come to terms with his disappointment.

Brauner, impris­oned on a rape con­vic­tion he main­tains was wrong­ful, had his life change for­ev­er in 2005 when, work­ing in the fields at Dixon Cor­rec­tion­al Insti­tute, he suf­fered a back injury that left him par­a­lyzed from the waist down.

Brauner was trans­ferred from Dixon to Louisiana State Pen­i­ten­tiary, bet­ter known as Ango­la. Clas­si­fied by an offi­cer as dan­ger­ous — despite being unable to walk — Brauner was placed on a bed in soli­tary con­fine­ment, with­out access to a wheel­chair. The pres­sure of his own body wore on his skin and cre­at­ed bed­sores, which became infect­ed. The infec­tion tun­neled through his but­tocks and scro­tum, expos­ing bone. With­in a month, it reached his blood and heart, requir­ing emer­gency surgery.

Brauner’s surgery saved his life but left deep, gap­ing wounds that failed to heal. He spent the next 10 years fight­ing the prison for med­ical care. As the offi­cial griev­ances he filed went nowhere, Brauner began to fear for his life. I start­ed see­ing that they don’t treat nobody,” he says. You get hurt, you get sick, or you can’t pro­duce for them no more in their fields or in the hob­by shop. … They put you on a ward on a bed and let you die.”

OLD TIMES THERE ARE NOT FORGOTTEN

Tucked into a bend of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, Ango­la is the largest max­i­mum-secu­ri­ty state prison in the coun­try. It is also a work­ing plan­ta­tion big­ger than Man­hat­tan. Home to more than 6,250 male con­victs and hun­dreds of freep­eo­ple” (employ­ees and their fam­i­lies), the pen­i­ten­tiary gets its name from the Angolan slaves who once worked its fields. Today, the cot­ton is picked and the sug­ar cane cut by crews of pris­on­ers, who are most­ly black, over­seen by armed guards on horseback.

From 1995 to 2015, Angola’s war­den was the con­tro­ver­sial and larg­er-than-life Burl Cain. Under his reign, the prison received reg­u­lar media atten­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the inmate rodeo” held eight week­ends a year, where incar­cer­at­ed men are tossed like rag dolls by charg­ing bulls in a pris­on­er-built are­na that can hold 10,000 cheer­ing spec­ta­tors. Cain opened the prison gates to film crews, reporters and curi­ous tourists who want­ed to vis­it the on-site golf course, muse­um and gift shop sell­ing Ango­la: A Gat­ed Com­mu­ni­ty” shirts. Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians revered him for his work build­ing chapels on Angola’s expan­sive grounds and bring­ing cap­tive souls to Jesus.

Cain, who stepped down in 2015 amid rev­e­la­tions of sus­pect real estate deal­ings with rel­a­tives of pris­on­ers, spent his career one step ahead of scan­dal: Dur­ing his tenure, a jour­nal­ist accused him of extor­tion, the FDA seized cas­es of expired evap­o­rat­ed milk that pris­on­ers were label­ing for resale, and pris­on­ers brought suits alleg­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against non-Evan­gel­i­cals. He always man­aged to avoid court, assist­ed by his deep fam­i­ly con­nec­tions, charis­ma and the rep­u­ta­tion he cul­ti­vat­ed for end­ing Angola’s era as America’s blood­i­est prison (though the vio­lence reced­ed long before he took the job).

Ango­la is also wide­ly known for its on-site hos­pice, where dying men receive end-of-life care from fel­low pris­on­ers. The hos­pice is the sub­ject of a fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary pro­duced by Oprah and nar­rat­ed by For­est Whitak­er. Pris­on­ers who die at Ango­la receive elab­o­rate funer­als, com­plete with a horse-drawn hearse, a hand­made cof­fin and bur­ial in one of two prison graveyards.

Yet, judg­ing by the expe­ri­ence of Brauner and hun­dreds of oth­er incar­cer­at­ed men, the respect offered to the dead and dying at Ango­la deflects atten­tion from a bru­tal real­i­ty: Death at Ango­la comes ear­li­er than it should, and sick­ness and suf­fer­ing are more preva­lent than they need to be — all due to the mis­er­able lev­el of health­care the State of Louisiana offers Angola’s prisoners.

DEATH ON THE INSTALL­MENT PLAN

Des­per­ate for bet­ter care, Brauner secret­ly record­ed the details of his med­ical treat­ment, hop­ing to build a law­suit against the prison and med­ical staff. Day by day, I doc­u­ment­ed,” he says. What date, what doc­tor came to see me, what he said, what he didn’t say, what he didn’t do. What the nurs­es are doing, what time they’re doing it, if I was left to lay there half the day before my dress­ings got changed.” He befriend­ed oth­er men in the nurs­ing ward and began keep­ing records of their treat­ment as well. I watched so many peo­ple die that didn’t need to die,” he says.

Brauner kept the logs hid­den in his lock­er, and in 2012 showed them to Nick Tren­ti­cos­ta, a New Orleans-based attor­ney who was con­sid­er­ing using Brauner as a wit­ness in an unre­lat­ed death penal­ty appeal. Tren­ti­cos­ta looked around the nurs­ing ward and saw open garbage con­tain­ers, show­ers filled with mold and mildew, and tape cov­ered in dead flies hang­ing over patients’ beds. He con­nect­ed Brauner to sev­er­al pris­on­ers’ rights attor­neys who began meet­ing with oth­er Ango­la prisoners.

In May 2015, a group of incar­cer­at­ed plain­tiffs filed a class action law­suit on behalf of the thou­sands of men held at Ango­la, alleg­ing that the prison’s med­ical care vio­lates the Constitution’s Eighth Amend­ment pro­hi­bi­tion against cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment.” They are rep­re­sent­ed by attor­neys from four firms — Advo­ca­cy Cen­ter, ACLU of Louisiana, Promise of Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive and Cohen Mil­stein Sell­ers & Toll PLLC — and are suing four defen­dants: Dar­rel Van­noy, who replaced Cain as head war­den in late 2015; Stephanie Lamar­tiniere, assis­tant war­den for health ser­vices; James LeBlanc, Louisiana’s sec­re­tary of cor­rec­tions; and the state Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions (DOC) itself. The lawyers inter­viewed hun­dreds of men to build their case and doc­u­ment­ed one med­ical hor­ror sto­ry after another.

Plain­tiff Shan­non Hurd, 41, was charged with first-degree rob­bery in 2003 for break­ing into a family’s home and steal­ing $14, and was con­vict­ed by a non-unan­i­mous jury. No one was harmed, but since Hurd had pri­or felonies, he received a manda­to­ry sen­tence of life in prison with­out parole.

Accord­ing to the com­plaint, at Ango­la, Hurd devel­oped extreme pain in his side. He repeat­ed­ly request­ed med­ical atten­tion start­ing in 2010, but his pain was dis­missed as gas. Over the fol­low­ing five years, he devel­oped numb­ness in his feet, legs and fin­ger­tips, lost his appetite, and dropped near­ly 100 pounds. When he final­ly received a CT scan in 2015, he was diag­nosed with stage 4 can­cer in his kid­neys and lungs — most like­ly a ter­mi­nal condition.

Anoth­er plain­tiff, Alton Adams, 53, suf­fers from periph­er­al artery dis­ease, but alleged­ly was told the state could not afford the stent he need­ed to save his right leg. A blood clot formed that led to three con­sec­u­tive ampu­ta­tions. Accord­ing to the com­plaint, Adams sees the same issues devel­op­ing in his left leg, but fears that if he push­es for care, he will face retaliation.

The Louisiana Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, which runs the prison, did not respond to requests for com­ment by In These Times, cit­ing ongo­ing lit­i­ga­tion. In a 2015 media state­ment, the DOC said that despite chal­lenges like the high num­bers of old­er pris­on­ers and those with chron­ic dis­eases, the prison has pro­vid­ed appro­pri­ate, qual­i­ty care.”

Sandy Nether­land-Roberts, a nurse who ran the prison hos­pice from 2009 to 2011, main­tains that Angola’s health­care is com­pa­ra­ble to care on the out­side. Does the sys­tem get backed up some? Absolute­ly. But if you’re in a char­i­ty sys­tem, even free peo­ple on the out­side, do they not wait for sev­er­al months to get an appoint­ment if it’s non-emer­gent? Absolutely.”

Dr. Anjali Niyo­gi, who directs a tran­si­tion clin­ic for the recent­ly incar­cer­at­ed in New Orleans and treats cur­rent Ango­la pris­on­ers as a physi­cian at Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter, has a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. We do see a lot of delayed care com­ing out of Ango­la,” she tells In These Times. Peo­ple who prob­a­bly should have been seen hon­est­ly, years or months earlier.”

SUS­PECT­ED MALINGERERS

Ango­la has a doc­u­ment­ed his­to­ry of sub­stan­dard med­ical care. In the 1990s, prompt­ed by a class action law­suit, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice con­duct­ed an inves­ti­ga­tion and report­ed to the court that Ango­la fails to rec­og­nize, diag­nose, treat or mon­i­tor the seri­ous med­ical needs of inmates.” The prison and plain­tiffs reached an agree­ment in 1998 that put Ango­la under a tem­po­rary fed­er­al monitor.

The cur­rent law­suit points out that many of the med­ical prac­tices described by the plain­tiffs echo those con­demned by the DOJ 25 years ago, includ­ing delays in care, under­qual­i­fied staff and a malin­ger­ing” rule that effec­tive­ly pun­ish­es peo­ple for request­ing med­ical assistance.

Accord­ing to the law­suit and inter­views con­duct­ed by In These Times, at Ango­la today, emer­gency med­ical tech­ni­cians (EMTs) — not physi­cians, physi­cian assis­tants or nurs­es — are the gate­keep­ers who deter­mine which patients need urgent med­ical treat­ment and which should be sent back to their cells. EMTs receive between 140 and 1,111 hours of train­ing, com­pared to the years required for med­ical degrees.

If the EMTs sus­pect a patient of malin­ger­ing, or fak­ing ill­ness to get out of work, he may receive a dis­ci­pli­nary write-up, which can lead to extend­ed soli­tary con­fine­ment. Clif­ford Dole­man, who was incar­cer­at­ed at Ango­la from 1994 to 2016 and worked as a pris­on­er order­ly there, says that the ail­ing men he assist­ed were afraid to request med­ical care, thanks to a gen­er­al assump­tion that pris­on­ers were faking.

In a depo­si­tion in August, Ango­la Med­ical Direc­tor Randy Laves­pere explained his biggest chal­lenge was deter­min­ing who’s telling the truth.”

A lot of them use the med­ical depart­ment for rea­sons not to go to work,” he said. In Ango­la, they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want to get well.”

Plain­tiffs say the EMT triage sys­tem and dis­trust of pris­on­ers cause long delays in care. In a 2014 email entered as tri­al evi­dence, the LSU hos­pi­tal stroke coor­di­na­tor com­plained, In the past month and a half I have had three inmates from Ango­la that pre­sent­ed with obvi­ous stroke symp­toms. All of them were out of the win­dow [for treat­ment] because it either took them a while to get here or the med­ical staff at Ango­la did not think the inmate was hav­ing a stroke.”

Brauner says he’s seen the same thing hap­pen to can­cer patients. They keep com­plain­ing about the same thing [but] the EMTs will just say, Well you got a stom­ach virus, give him Pep­to-Bis­mol, just give him some­thing and get him out of here.’ If you go there too much, they’ll write you up for malin­ger­ing. So then all of a sud­den they decide to final­ly send him out, well, he’s already got Stage 3 can­cer. Because they pro­cras­ti­nat­ed and pro­cras­ti­nat­ed, this guy’s dying.”

And peo­ple do die at Ango­la, at extreme­ly high rates. In 2015, there were 58 deaths — more than one a week. That mor­tal­i­ty rate — 923 deaths per 100,000 pris­on­ers — dwarfs the nation­wide aver­age in state pris­ons, which was 274 deaths per 100,000 in 2013 (the most recent year data was available).

One fac­tor is the large pro­por­tion of Angola’s pris­on­ers serv­ing life sen­tences — more than 65 per­cent — thanks to Louisiana’s dra­con­ian sen­tenc­ing laws, like the one that sent Shan­non Hurd to prison for life over $14. Twen­ty-five per­cent of Angola’s pris­on­ers are 55 or old­er, com­pared to just 10 per­cent in state and fed­er­al pris­ons nationwide.

But it’s not just old men who are dying. Last year, mor­tal­i­ty rates at Ango­la were high­er than the 2013 nation­al aver­ages for pris­on­ers in every sin­gle age group over 25.

A LOW PRICE ON HUMAN LIFE

Despite the com­plex health­care needs of its aging pop­u­la­tion, Ango­la spends far below aver­age on med­ical care. Accord­ing to num­bers pro­vid­ed to In These Times by the Louisiana DOC, a total of $18.82 mil­lion was spent on health­care at Ango­la in 2015, or just under $3,000 per per­son. The Pew Research Cen­ter cal­cu­lat­ed that in 2011, the nation­al per capi­ta aver­age for state pris­ons was $6,047.

Angola’s low med­ical spend­ing stems in part from Louisiana’s bal­loon­ing bud­get deficit. This year the state cut fund­ing for pub­lic col­leges, schools and health­care providers, as well as prisons.

In 2010, Louisiana spent less incar­cer­at­ing each pris­on­er than all but three oth­er states, and per-pris­on­er spend­ing has only dropped since. This year the state low­ered the dai­ly per-pris­on­er reim­burse­ment rate from $31.51 to $24.39 at two pri­vate­ly run facil­i­ties. As a result, the con­tract was rene­go­ti­at­ed to con­vert them from pris­ons to jails, which means the facil­i­ties no longer need to pro­vide med­ical ser­vices. Peo­ple with chron­ic con­di­tions are being trans­ferred to state-run facilities.

Frus­trat­ed with bud­get cut­backs, in March Louisiana Cor­rec­tions Sec­re­tary James LeBlanc (a defen­dant in the law­suit) told the Advo­cate that lack of funds was affect­ing the care of incar­cer­at­ed men and women. We can’t med­icate them, we can’t house them, we can’t feed them — and those are con­sti­tu­tion­al issues.”

Angola’s med­ical costs increased in 2013 and 2014 when the state pri­va­tized nine LSU hos­pi­tals in no-bid con­tracts under for­mer Gov. Bob­by Jin­dal. In the hos­pi­tal realign­ment, the state closed Earl K. Long Med­ical Cen­ter in Baton Rouge, which had han­dled the vast major­i­ty of Angola’s hos­pi­tal vis­its. Ango­la now sends emer­gency cas­es to two area hos­pi­tals, and patients need­ing ongo­ing treat­ment (as well as some emer­gen­cies) are trans­port­ed to Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter in New Orleans, over two hours away.

Ango­la recoups some mon­ey by charg­ing co-pay­ments, a com­mon prac­tice in U.S. pris­ons and jails. Indi­vid­u­als are charged $3 for rou­tine sick calls and $6 for emer­gency calls — regard­less of whether the EMT sends them on to see a doc­tor. Pre­scrip­tions cost $2. Accord­ing to num­bers pro­vid­ed by the DOC, Ango­la billed more than $192,000 in co-pay­ments over three years.

The men held at Ango­la make as lit­tle as four cents an hour for gru­el­ing field­work, mean­ing it could take 150 hours to pay off a sin­gle $6 co-pay for an emer­gency assess­ment. And while the prison is con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly oblig­at­ed to care for patients who can’t afford the co-pay, that debt doesn’t dis­ap­pear. The bills stack up,” says Fran­cis Brauner. If you ever do get mon­ey, they take all that mon­ey to pay toward your med­ical bill. And if you don’t, and you leave prison, it fol­lows you.”

DOC­TORS WITH­OUT LICENSES

Attract­ing doc­tors to work in Louisiana pris­ons can be a chal­lenge. The pay, although six fig­ures, is low­er than in pri­vate prac­tice, and some physi­cians are reluc­tant to come to rur­al areas or to work with a high-risk, stig­ma­tized population.

The state DOC has a solu­tion to this prob­lem: It hires doc­tors with sus­pend­ed licens­es. The Louisiana Med­ical Board allows physi­cians whose med­ical licens­es have been sus­pend­ed for legal or eth­i­cal vio­la­tions to prac­tice in pris­ons, a pol­i­cy that is strong­ly opposed by the two major nation­al pro­fes­sion­al orga­ni­za­tions of cor­rec­tion­al physi­cians, the Nation­al Com­mis­sion on Cor­rec­tion­al Health Care and the Soci­ety of Cor­rec­tion­al Physicians.

Since the begin­ning of 2011, 14 physi­cians have been employed by Ango­la. Twelve came to Ango­la after receiv­ing dis­ci­pli­nary sanc­tions from the state med­ical board for mis­con­duct. Dr. Hal Mac­Mur­do, who was hired as a physi­cian in Sep­tem­ber 2010 and is now assis­tant med­ical direc­tor, had a sus­pend­ed license from Sep­tem­ber 2010 to Sep­tem­ber 2015 for alleged­ly drink­ing on the job. The license of anoth­er Ango­la physi­cian, Dr. Paul Toce, is on indef­i­nite pro­ba­tion for pro­fes­sion­al sex­u­al mis­con­duct.” Cur­rent Med­ical Direc­tor Dr. Randy Laves­pere served a two-year prison sen­tence and had his license sus­pend­ed from Octo­ber 2009 to Octo­ber 2014 for pur­chas­ing crys­tal meth with the intent to dis­trib­ute in 2006 (he was hired at Ango­la in Sep­tem­ber 2010). The state med­ical board not­ed that Laves­pere was diag­nosed with amphet­a­mine, cocaine and cannabis depen­dence, in addi­tion to adjust­ment dis­or­der and per­son­al­i­ty dis­or­der with anti­so­cial, nar­cis­sis­tic and avoidant features.

Dr. Tobe Mom­ah, whose record is clear of eth­i­cal vio­la­tions, worked at Ango­la in 2011 and 2012. He says he felt called to Ango­la after hear­ing Burl Cain speak at a church, but admits that his col­leagues with sus­pend­ed licens­es didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly share a mis­sion-mind­ed” phi­los­o­phy. It doesn’t mean they were bad,” he told In These Times. It just means their vision, motive, phi­los­o­phy was dif­fer­ent. Some of them were just like, I just want to get this over with and get back to my life.’ ”

Dr. Raman Singh, med­ical direc­tor of the state DOC (and for­mer Ango­la med­ical direc­tor), defend­ed the prac­tice of hir­ing unli­censed physi­cians in a 2012 inter­view with the Times-Picayune. I can’t find a doc­tor at all for six months, and that cre­ates a huge lia­bil­i­ty for the unit and for the insti­tu­tion,” he said. When I was new, I was told that We just need a body in that job.’ Some­times it’s so des­per­ate a sit­u­a­tion, you just need a body in the job.”

Cor­rec­tion­al physi­cians can rea­son­ably han­dle case­loads of 600 to 800, accord­ing to a health­care eval­u­a­tion of Ango­la con­duct­ed by med­ical exam­in­ers for the law­suit. At Ango­la, three physi­cians and one nurse prac­ti­tion­er are respon­si­ble for almost 1,600 patients each.

DELIB­ER­ATE INDIFFERENCE

Some prison staff describe an adver­sar­i­al rela­tion­ship with pris­on­ers they believe are over­ly eager to sue them. The offend­ers taught me every­thing I need­ed to know about cov­er­ing your behind,” says for­mer hos­pice man­ag­er Sandy Nether­land-Roberts. They will find every way pos­si­ble to burn you. They have noth­ing but time to fig­ure out a way.”

In fact, it is very dif­fi­cult to file suc­cess­ful law­suits from prison. The fed­er­al Prison Lit­i­ga­tion Reform Act (PLRA), passed in 1996, places tight restric­tions on incar­cer­at­ed plain­tiffs in a sup­posed effort to lim­it friv­o­lous lit­i­ga­tion. Plain­tiffs must first exhaust the prison griev­ance process, and PLRA caps the fees that pris­on­ers’ attor­neys can recoup from the prison if their client wins.

These bar­ri­ers suc­ceed in block­ing lit­i­ga­tion: Despite thou­sands of health-relat­ed griev­ances filed each year, the Louisiana DOC faced just 40 law­suits relat­ed to phys­i­cal and men­tal health­care in 2015.

Even when incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple man­age to get their cas­es heard in court, the deck remains stacked against them. Plain­tiffs have to prove delib­er­ate indif­fer­ence on the part of the prison. One fed­er­al judge used a col­or­ful metaphor to define how high a bar this is: If prison offi­cials place a pris­on­er in a cell that has a cobra, but they do not know that there is a cobra there, or even that there is a high prob­a­bil­i­ty that there is a cobra there, they are not guilty of delib­er­ate indif­fer­ence — even if they should have known about the risk.” When Fran­cis Brauner filed a law­suit against Ango­la, it was thrown out on the grounds that he could not demon­strate delib­er­ate indifference.

Attor­ney Nick Tren­ti­cos­ta believes the judi­cial sys­tem shouldn’t treat pris­on­ers’ claims with extra sus­pi­cion. The major­i­ty of pris­on­ers are hon­est peo­ple,” he says. They have health needs. They present those health needs and unfor­tu­nate­ly, it appears they are met with skepticism.”

Mer­cedes Mon­tagnes, lead attor­ney in the class action suit, says PLRA’s restric­tions on pris­on­er lit­i­ga­tion are sim­i­lar to the con­cept of allow­ing physi­cians with sus­pend­ed licens­es to work in pris­ons: Both are dou­ble stan­dards that place a low­er val­ue on incar­cer­at­ed lives. There are two ways to look at pris­on­ers,” she says. That they deserve less good care, which I think is pret­ty awful, or they are the most vul­ner­a­ble patients a per­son can have. The most, bar none.”

Oth­ers feel con­flict­ed about the state’s oblig­a­tion to cov­er expen­sive med­ical treat­ment for con­vict­ed felons. In ear­ly 2016, state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb ques­tioned the expen­sive med­ical treat­ment the state was pro­vid­ing for Der­rick Todd Lee, a death row pris­on­er con­vict­ed of two mur­ders and linked to five oth­ers, includ­ing the bru­tal mur­der of Dorsey-Colomb’s step­daugh­ter. He’s still here, and he can still go get health­care when all the vic­tims are dead by his hands,” she told the Advo­cate.

Yet if the state can­not afford the care it is con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly oblig­at­ed to pro­vide, per­haps it is incar­cer­at­ing too many peo­ple — a point the U.S. Supreme Court made in 2011 when it man­dat­ed the reduc­tion of California’s prison pop­u­la­tion in Brown v. Pla­ta. In that case, the Court deter­mined that if a prison deprives pris­on­ers of basic sus­te­nance, includ­ing ade­quate med­ical care,” the courts have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to inter­vene, includ­ing through orders lim­it­ing a prison’s population.”

Incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple are unique­ly at the mer­cy of the state. They are unin­sured, have to jump through hoops to see a doc­tor and are unable to seek a sec­ond opin­ion when told there is noth­ing wrong.

U.S. pris­on­ers serve sen­tences unimag­in­able in the rest of the devel­oped world, but nobody is sen­tenced to pre­ma­ture death by med­ical neglect. Fran­cis Brauner recalls telling doc­tors, I’m not sen­tenced to death. And that’s the bot­tom line.” But for too many, get­ting sick in Ango­la is a death sentence.

When the law­suit was announced in 2015, the lead plain­tiff was 81-year-old Joseph Lewis, who alleged­ly spent three years sub­mit­ting sick call requests for chron­ic throat pain with­out receiv­ing any­thing stronger than Q‑Tussin spray. Final­ly, after he was vis­it­ed by attor­neys, prison offi­cials took him to a hos­pi­tal, where the doc­tor rec­om­mend­ed an imme­di­ate biop­sy. When Lewis received the test — more than two months lat­er, accord­ing to the law­suit — he learned he had throat can­cer. He died with­in eight months of relat­ed complications.

The plain­tiffs in Ango­la think their unnec­es­sary suf­fer­ing is a form of cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment, just as the Supreme Court ruled of California’s prison med­ical care in 2011. Accord­ing to the com­plaint, men at Ango­la suf­fer her­nias for years, devel­op life-threat­en­ing infec­tions, or go blind from glau­co­ma. The med­ical exam­in­ers who inves­ti­gat­ed Ango­la for the law­suit con­clud­ed that, in their col­lec­tive 60 years of cor­rec­tion­al med­i­cine expe­ri­ence, Louisiana State Penitentiary’s deliv­ery of med­ical care is one of the worst we have ever reviewed.”

As of August 31, the DOC had billed $599,877 fight­ing the suit, which is sched­uled to go to tri­al in May 2017. Mean­while, accord­ing to the plain­tiffs, prison offi­cials have attempt­ed to paper over the prob­lems iden­ti­fied in this law­suit by trans­fer­ring many severe­ly dis­abled inmates” to Elayn Hunt Cor­rec­tion­al Cen­ter, anoth­er state facility.
Mer­cedes Mon­tagnes said her team’s goal is to bring health­care to an ade­quate lev­el for every­one at Ango­la. If the plain­tiffs demon­strate a con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tion, the court can appoint a fed­er­al mon­i­tor to ensure that con­di­tions improve.

Fran­cis Brauner was released on parole in 2015, after serv­ing 17 years. As a free per­son, he is inel­i­gi­ble to be a named plain­tiff in the class action suit. At press time, he was still await­ing surgery to close his wounds. 

This report­ing was made pos­si­ble by a grant from the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing.

Katie Rose Quandt is an inves­tiga­tive reporter and for­mer In These Times intern whose work has appeared in Moth­er Jones and Slate, and on Bill​Moy​ers​.com. Read more of Quandt’s work here. James Ridge­way has been an inves­tiga­tive reporter for more than 50 years and has served on the staffs of The New Repub­lic, the Vil­lage Voice and Moth­er Jones. He is the author of 17 books and co-direc­tor of three films. He cur­rent­ly directs Soli­tary Watch, a nation­al prison watch­dog group.
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