Dissatisfied with what they believe is a lack of progress in how sick and disabled inmates are treated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, attorneys for those incarcerated at the facility appeared in federal court on Monday, saying little had changed since a judge ruled that corrections officials had been “deliberately indifferent” to the medical needs of inmates.
In an April 2021 ruling, U.S. Chief District Judge Shelly Dick found that inmates’ access to health care was unconstitutionally inadequate in the areas of clinical care, specialty care, nursing and emergency care. Diagnoses and treatments are so poor that they violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, she said.
Lawyers representing detainees in Angola said in court on Monday that these problems persisted and, in some cases, had worsened.
In her opening statement, Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, cited several situations between January 2019 and January 2022 where inmates received inadequate care: A patient with hepatitis C suffered for six weeks from pain in the liver before receiving treatment; another with kidney failure was given drugs that likely damaged the organ further; and an inmate with persistent and debilitating back pain that was ignored eventually died of a spinal cord infection.
“Despite the assurances…they fixed things, the problems persisted,” she said.
The attorney for Department of Corrections officials argued that Angola had undergone a transformation since 2021, pointing to seven new nurse hires, a change in medical leadership and facility improvements, such as air conditioning in the prison. Infirmary. The lawyers noted that officials had “made great strides” to improve medical care over the past year.
The hearing kicked off a two-week testimony period during which both parties will present evidence.
The plaintiffs’ first witness, inmate Dennis Mischler, 70, arrived in a wheelchair, masked, bent over in apparent pain. It was only after his lawyer pointed out that the restraints around his wrists were hurting him that they were removed.
On the stand, Mischler recounted his chronic struggles with diabetes, urinary tract infections, blood pressure and a deteriorating back.
For his severe back pain, he is given ibuprofen, he said. For his diabetes, he is prescribed insulin twice a day, but sometimes the correctional officers who give him his medication do not have testers for him to measure his blood sugar.
Without a tester, he could take the wrong amount of insulin with dangerous effect. It happens once or twice a week, he said.
“I think the medical staff and the procedures in Angola are very poor,” he said. “It causes a lot of stress for the inmates, certainly for me.”
After three falls from his wheelchair, he saw medical staff frequently, although he said doctors did not appear to be aware of his ongoing case.
“We are kind of treated like numbers,” he said.
The hearing is the latest development since a class action lawsuit was filed in 2015 alleging Angolan detainees suffered unnecessary pain, exacerbation of existing conditions, permanent disability, disfigurement and even death as a result of treatment “seriously deficient” medical services.
The judge’s decision came after several weeks of testimony at a trial in 2018, months of post-trial briefs filed by both sides and a visit by Dick to the jail in February 2020.
Angola is no stranger to federal oversight.
The late U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola, after becoming a federal district court judge in 1980, continued to enforce federal prison oversight that began in the mid-1970s and oversaw a consent decree in Angola related to prosecutions concerning the conditions of detention from 1983 until 1998.
The long-running legal battle began in 1971 when detainees in Angola sued over conditions there. The lawsuit eventually led to the federal consent decree of 1983, in which Polozola ordered limits on prison populations.