The son of Markus Lanieux – the Louisiana prisoner who was the subject of a joint report last week by Verite News and ProPublica – died Thursday (Sept. 7) while in state custody at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Cottonport.

Ken Pastorick, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Corrections said last week there is an ongoing investigation into 22-year-old Markus Lanieux Jr.’s death, calling it an “apparent suicide.” On Tuesday, Pastorick said that no further details were available.

The lack of answers from DOC officials has prevented the family from properly grieving, they said Monday (Sept. 11).

“My son gone. My son ain’t coming back,” said Lanieux Jr.’s mother, Sheletha LeBranch. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if my baby was scared, if he cried or called out.”

He fled a traffic stop in Kenner.
Now he’s in prison for life.

After 12 years behind bars, Markus Lanieux thought
he had a deal for his release. Then Jeff Landry stepped in.

Lanieux Jr., who was sentenced to 25 years in June after pleading guilty to armed robbery, computer fraud and possessing a weapon as a convicted felon, had been at the prison for less than three weeks, his family said. At the time of his death, they said Lanieux Jr. told them he had been placed in disciplinary segregation, a secured unit separate from the prison’s general population, which corrections experts have warned can exacerbate mental health problems. 

The elder Lanieux is serving life in prison after being convicted as a third-time habitual offender in 2009 when his son was eight years old. He was found guilty of aggravated flight from an officer and initially sentenced to two years, but the Jefferson Parish District Attorney used a pair of previous drug convictions to have him resentenced as a repeat offender.  

His son is the third close family member to die in recent years while he has been serving life, following his mother in 2020 and his sister last year. Prison officials informed him of the death late last week. 

The elder Lanieux’s attorney, Amy Myers, spoke to him Tuesday and provided notes from their meeting to Verite News. 

“Markus was a good person,” he said of his son, according to Myers. “I just can’t believe it. I finally got up out the bed. I was just lying in the bed hurting. It just hurt. We just talking about how I need to get out of here to help him.”

According to family members, Laborde’s warden contacted them around 2 p.m. Thursday. They said the warden told them Lanieux Jr. died by suicide and that he was sorry the death happened under his watch. The warden declined to answer any additional questions, they said, including how Lanieux Jr. was able to kill himself when he was being held in disciplinary segregation, which is supposed to be a heavily secured and highly monitored section of the facility.

Lanieux Jr.’s siblings, Markesha and Patrick LeBranch, said they spoke to their brother  multiple times in the week leading up to his death and that he didn’t sound distraught or depressed. It was inconceivable, they said, that he would kill himself the day before his younger sister’s ninth birthday.

“He would have said something to somebody,” his mother said. “If he was going through something, is no way that he would have been able to hide it from me.”

Family members said they have ordered their own autopsy.

The last known suicide in a state prison occurred in February when Dean Vanberge was found hanging from a bed sheet in his cell at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, the same prison where the elder Lanieux is held. Three months before that, Jamaal Harris was also found hanging in his cell at Hunt. Like Lanieux Jr., Harris was being held in disciplinary segregation at the time of his death, according to The Times-Picayune | The Advocate.

“That is one of the most troubling aspects about suicides that we see in Louisiana, is that so many are happening in solitary,” said Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.  

Between 2015 and 2021, nearly one-third of suicides in Louisiana prisons, jails and youth detention facilities occurred in segregation, according to Armstrong’s report “Louisiana Deaths Behind Bars.” And suicides accounted for 67% of all unnatural deaths in segregation units.  

“We have both national and international court opinions finding that extended use of solitary contributes to significant mental health harms and distress,” Armstrong said. “If we’re going to continue using it, then we have to radically change all of the protocols that go with it.”

The elder Lanieux recently spent 76 days in segregation at Hunt. In that time, he said, he went without a blanket, bath towel or deodorant for weeks, was only allowed out of his cell for a few minutes a day and had sporadic access to the telephone. 

The Department of Corrections said there is “nothing in his disciplinary report” that indicates that staff removed blankets, towels or deodorant.

As Verite News and ProPublica reported last week, Myers last year was in negotiations with the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office to have the elder Lanieux’s sentence reduced under a 2021 law that allows prosecutors to revisit and reduce excessive sentences. Those negotiations ended, however, after Attorney General Jeff Landry challenged the law, saying it encroached on and usurped the clemency powers reserved for the governor. 

On Friday, the day after Markus Lanieux, Jr.’s death, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of Landry, declaring the law to be unconstitutional. Myers said she is exploring other avenues to possibly secure his release, but at this point nothing is certain.

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...