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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Poet Wolfe in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

‘Egregious’: Louisiana prisons have experienced 50% spike in deaths, report says

an aerial view of a prison complex
The Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola in 2011. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Lois Ratcliff says she hardly survived watching her son slowly die in one of the US south’s most brutal prisons.

Ratcliff’s son, Farrell Sampier, was one of the at least 500 incarcerated people – most of whom were Black men over the age of 55 – who died within Louisiana’s prison system in the last three years, according to a recent report by Loyola University New Orleans’s college of law. And another report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that the most prison deaths between 2018 and 2022 occurred at Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison.

Sampier not only was in Angola serving a 20-year prison sentence for manslaughter. He was also one of the many incarcerated plaintiffs who testified in a class-action lawsuit that in 2023 resulted in federal oversight for the prison, where healthcare had been deemed deathly inadequate and unconstitutional.

While Louisiana appeals the ruling, arguing that Angola’s healthcare has improved, the state’s prison population is expected to continue ageing and dying under the state’s far-right governor, Jeff Landry, who took office in January after running on a tough-on-crime platform. He convened a special legislative session on 19 February aimed at enacting a swath of criminal justice measures that reform advocates worry could send the state’s incarceration rate soaring again and put even more people in the position Sampier was once in.

That’s an especially frightening proposition for advocates who know Sampier was one of at least 1,168 incarcerated people to die within Louisiana lockups – including pre-trial jails and juvenile detention centers – from 2015 to 2021, the Loyola report revealed. And, the report found, there was a 50% spike in deaths at Louisiana incarceration centers from 2019 to 2022.

During his time incarcerated, Sampier was diagnosed with transverse myelitis – an inflammation of the spine. He eventually lost use of his legs, forcing him to use a wheelchair. His health declined steadily until his death in 2019, which resulted from a stroke, pneumonia and sepsis, according to an autopsy report cited by Ratcliff.

Yet Sampier’s health didn’t become an albatross until he was put behind bars.

Sampier, at 44, was sent to New Orleans’ jail after he shot his grandchild’s allegedly abusive father to death. Diabetes was the only health problem with which he was grappling.

But then Hurricane Isaac flooded the inside of New Orleans’s lock-up, and Sampier was diagnosed with transverse myelitis. Ratcliff, who spent more than 50 years in healthcare, fears that the flood water may have seeped into Sampier’s foot ulcers – a common symptom of diabetes – and entered his bloodstream, causing him to develop his diagnosis.

The jail refused to treat the inflammation. And by the time he was transferred to Angola after pleading guilty to manslaughter in 2013, Sampier was in a wheelchair.

Medical staffers at the prison derisively referred to as the Alcatraz of the south immediately and unnecessarily put Sampier into hospice care, Sampier said. She recalled how they insisted on putting him on medication for suicidal thoughts despite him not having any.

Ratcliff lived in Georgia yet was devoted to seeing her son every week. However, it became increasingly harder to witness Sampier struggle to cope in the conditions of Angola’s medical facility.

“I know it wasn’t a Holiday Inn,” Ratcliff said. “But he still should’ve been treated better than that.”

Nurses with mucus leaking from their noses would put pills in Sampler’s mouth, Ratcliff recalled seeing, as she has previously told the Marshall Project. During meals, Ratcliff said she saw staffers place diapers on tables as a tablecloth.

And, if patients were near death, nurses would drag them to a holding cell, where the sick inmates would decay, his mother said.

Ratcliff became so distraught she considered dying by suicide. But she knew that if she did, no one would be there to support her son.

In five years at Angola, nurses there hardly ever checked Sampier’s blood sugar and often failed to give him the proper medication, Ratcliff said. Sampier told his mother that the constant pain made him feel as if he were sitting in an oven.

He died at age 51.

Making things even more dire within the environment where Sampier languished was the fact that there was a steep increase in suicides and deaths from substance abuse between 2020 and 2021, said the Loyola professor Andrea Armstrong, who authored the university’s report on fatal conditions in Louisiana’s prison system.

As Armstrong sees it, the harsh truth is that Louisiana’s corrections facilities lack the security needed to adequately realize Landry’s goal of filling the state’s prisons and detention centers back up.

“If the plan is simply to put more people in and there isn’t a plan on recruitment, training and retention [of prison staff], then it’s a recipe for a disaster,” Armstrong said.

Erica Navalance, who litigated on behalf of plaintiffs in the Angola class-action lawsuit, said that some of the Louisiana corrections facilities weren’t even recording how incarcerated people in their custody were dying annually, which is required by federal law. Some federal prisons had reported such numbers, but they were fighting against disclosing them.

Navalance said that showed how Louisiana considers those incarcerated to have “their personhood devalued”, setting the stage for “egregious” violations of the US constitution’s eighth amendment, which is meant to protect citizens from cruel and unusual punishments.

“There’s a real resistance to the idea that we can do better, that we have the resources to do better, that we have the will to do better, that we deserve to do better,” she said.

Jeffrey Dubner, a legal director for Democracy Forward, said the Angola conditions lawsuit which he helped the plaintiffs litigate and which Louisiana is appealing simply argues that the state’s incarcerated people deserve medical healthcare that meets the minimum constitutional standard.

“The state has an obligation just in terms of recognizing people’s basic humanity,” Dubner said, “And to be providing medical care in its prisons.”

Louisiana corrections officials did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

Correction: This story was updated on 27 February 2024 to correct the number of incarcerated people to die in Louisiana lockups from 2015 to 2021, which was 1,168.

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