Health care for thousands of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola could soon be under the oversight of a federal court, following a Monday ruling by a Baton Rouge judge who wrote that medical treatment now offered to prisoners “is not care at all,” but instead “abhorrent cruel and unusual punishment.” 

U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick’s ruling comes as the result of a 2015 lawsuit filed on behalf of a dozen inmates at the infamous facility against state corrections officials.

The original complaint, which was later certified as a class-action lawsuit, alleged that the prison’s health care “falls far short of minimal constitutional requirements and fails to meet prisoners’ basic health needs, leaving painful and often life-threatening conditions unaddressed or inadequately addressed.”

“Prisoners report horror story after horror story: a man denied medical attention four times during a stroke, leaving him blind and paralyzed; a man denied access to a specialist for four years while his throat cancer advanced; a blind man denied even a cane for 16 years,” the complaint reads.

In her 104-page ruling, Dick stated that the human cost of the state’s failure has been “unspeakable.” In one case, a 65-year-old man suffered seven fevers of more than 103 degrees in a single month. Instead of treatment, prison officials locked him in a room in the infirmary and did not provide him a physician for three days.

“Two days after being discharged from the infirmary, he was found vomiting in his cell,” Dick wrote. “Angola doctors ordered EMTs not to transport the sick man to the hospital. He died in his cell the next day.”

To remedy the situation, Dick ordered the appointment of three special masters to develop, implement and monitor plans to improve health care at the prison. Within 30 days of her order, both plaintiffs and defendants must submit names to fill the three positions, which should include a physician, a nurse or nurse practitioner, and someone with expertise in “handicap and disability access and accommodations.”

“Your humanity does not stop at the prison gate,” said Mercedes Montagnes, the former executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative and co-lead counsel in the suit. “This court’s ruling underscores the value in every life and holds our state accountable for its failure to protect patients.”

In a statement late Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections wrote that Dick’s ruling ignored improvements the prison has made since the suit was filed eight years ago.

“This matter has been pending since 2015.  During this entire time period, Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) has continued to improve health care at the facility, has added qualified health care personnel, and has improved its facilities,” DOC Communications Director Ken Pastorick wrote. “The court has refused to even consider current conditions at the facility in rendering its opinion.”

The Department of Corrections plans to appeal the order, Pastorick added.

In March 2021, the court found that the prison violated the inmates’ constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment by failing to provide adequate medical care, including the transportation of prisoners suffering emergencies to the hospital in a timely fashion, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the staffing of the infirmary with qualified personnel, among other violations.

A trial focused on how to fix those issues was held in June 2022, resulting in Monday’s ruling.   

Health care at the prison has been under scrutiny for decades. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into conditions of confinement at the prison, it found multiple constitutional violations, including the “failure to provide adequate medical and psychiatric care,” according to Dick’s ruling.

Ten years later, the state corrections agency hired a third-party consultant to assess medical treatment at Angola and “identified persistent health care deficiencies,” but those results were dismissed by prison officials, according to court documents.

This is part of a pattern, Dick wrote, as medical staff at the prison has often “dismissed out of hand” allegations of unconstitutional practices, claiming that “nothing is wrong with their policies and procedures.”

“In the rare instances that Defendants concede necessary changes, evidence suggests that they have taken a ‘band-aid’ approach to remedies,” Dick wrote.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

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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...