Officials at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola have kept prisoners in “disciplinary segregation” longer than the prison’s disciplinary protocols call for, leading to a hunger strike starting last week among several people incarcerated at the prison, who say they have been locked in their cells for over 23 hours a day, being let out only to shower.
“It’s like mental torture,” said Frederick Ross, one of the prisoners involved in the strike. “Eight months I haven’t seen any sunlight.”
Eight people in the prison said they stopped eating the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 17, said that they were being held after the time designated for their punishment in response rules infractions were completed. Some, such as Ross, said they were being held for months passed when they were supposed to be let off the tier, others for weeks. “We’re held here over our time,” said Donald Hensley, who is 54 years old. “Illegally. With no yard calls, no exercise, no sunshine, no clothing. No nothing.”
Hensley said he has been in disciplinary segregation for over 5 months, initially for a violation. He said he was supposed to be transferred off the tier in January.
“All they’re saying is, ‘We ain’t got nowhere to put you,’” Ross said. “Because of that, I’m being punished.”
The strikers also said that prison officials were doing everything they could to ignore or actively discourage the strike — initially refusing to acknowledge that it was even happening, failing to document the missed meals in reports, and refusing to provide medical or mental health care for the men.
“We’re not getting any help from the administration, that’s for certain,” said another striker. “They’re doing everything they can to circumvent, and discourage, and manipulate and play games. I mean it’s ridiculous.”
“We haven’t seen medical,” he said. “They refuse to bring us medical.”
‘It hasn’t been good’
The men said that in segregation, they are kept in their cells for over 23 hours a day— some with cellmates, others on their own — and are only let out to shower. But even that, some said, is not guaranteed.
“We gotta fight for a shower,” said Percy Hawthorne, who is 46, and said he had been in disciplinary segregation since early November for “defiance” and “aggravated disobedience,” despite the fact that his punishment was only supposed to be 10 days.
Frederick Ross said that for most of the time he was in disciplinary segregation, he was not allowed to purchase items from the canteen.
“I have no property, no books, no television.” Ross said. “No, nothing.”
Several strikers said that the lights don’t work in their cells, meaning the only light is what comes in through the hallways. Hensley said that was causing him medical issues.
“It hasn’t been good,” said Hensley. “It hasn’t been good. I’ve been dealing with a situation with my eyes. I’ve never had a light in my cell since I’ve been in my cell. And I just found out I have cataracts in both eyes. I’ve been having headaches, migraines, blurred vision.”
A number of the strikers complained that being in the cell for over 23 hours a day was taking other physical tolls as well.
“There’s no recreation, no sunlight, and I haven’t been able to stretch my joints because there’s no hall time,” Ross said.
“We just sit here, we can’t get out to cell to walk around the hallway, the way it should be,” said another striker. “They’re supposed to give you some type of relief after you’ve been in a cell so long. They’re not doing it.”
‘They do what they want’
James Thom said he was initially sentenced to just four days on the disciplinary tier, but had been there two weeks. He said he was striking because he has seen the way that others have been left on the tier for much longer.
“They’re just not acknowledging you,” Thom said. “They’re just throwing you in the cell and forgetting about you. And you’re sitting here for four, five, six months up to a year. It’s crazy.”
Louisiana prisons have long been criticized for their overuse of restrictive housing and solitary confinement.
A 2019 report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that between January 2015 and November 2016 “on average, 17.4 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana’s state-operated prisons were housed in some form of segregated housing, which is approximately 3.9 times the estimated national average of 4.5 percent.”
“I don’t know how 10 days turned into 115 days,” Hawthorne said. “But they do what they want up here. They do what they want.”