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Judge Orders Changes to Louisiana Prison Labor Program Likened to ‘19th Century Slavery’

Incarcerated laborers on Angola’s Farm Line face “substantial risk of injury or death” during extreme heat, a federal judge ruled this week, ordering corrections officials to make policy changes to “preserve human health and safety.”

The entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.msppmoore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A federal judge on Tuesday condemned working conditions for incarcerated people laboring on Louisiana State Penitentiary’s “Farm Line” and ordered corrections officials to make changes to their heat-related policies. In the same ruling, however, the judge denied a request to temporarily halt such work when heat index temperatures—also known as the apparent temperature—exceed 88 degrees.

As summers get hotter, “dealing with the heat in Louisiana has become a matter of life and death,” Judge Brian A. Jackson wrote in his more than 70-page ruling. “Conditions on the Farm Line ‘create a substantial risk of injury or death.’” 

Last year, several individuals incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—better known as Angola—and the advocacy group Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) sued the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections and others, alleging the Farm Line violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

The lawsuit seeks to close the Farm Line permanently, but it may be months or longer before the case is resolved. With that suit still under consideration, the plaintiffs filed an interim motion in May to protect men at Angola from having to work on the Farm Line in potentially deadly heat. 

In granting the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order on Tuesday, Jackson identified “glaring deficiencies” in Angola’s heat-related policies, noting that they fail to meet federal and state requirements for heat safety in agricultural settings. He ordered corrections officials to make changes to “preserve human health and safety.” But Jackson also denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to immediately halt Farm Line work pending the case’s resolution.

Among the required updates to Angola’s heat-related policies, Jackson ruled corrections officials must address the current “failure to provide adequate shade, rest, sunscreen, and other protective equipment, as well as the failure to provide accommodations for those incarcerated persons suffering from an illness or ailment that significantly inhibits thermoregulation.” Corrections officials must also “develop an additional heat-related policy to protect those laboring outdoors when heat indexes reach or exceed 113 degrees, the temperature at which the National Weather Service issues excessive heat warnings.” Defendants must submit their revised policies to the court within seven days.

In a statement to The Appeal, attorney Lydia Wright of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, said they were “elated with the district court’s careful findings that in its current form, the Farm Line falls short of basic constitutional standards.”

In a statement to The Appeal on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections said they “strongly disagree with the court’s overall ruling and have filed a notice of appeal.”

On the site of a former slave plantation, Angola’s Farm Line work consists of prisoners—most of whom are Black—laboring in the fields, often without pay or at wages of just two cents an hour, according to the plaintiffs’ motion. The plaintiffs say they can be placed in solitary confinement if they refuse to participate. The Farm Line is “akin to nineteenth-century slavery,” the motion states. 

“During their shifts, the men perform grueling, but pointless, manual agricultural labor, like picking rotten watermelons, okra, and other crops with their bare hands, weeding and plucking grass by hand, and watering crops using Styrofoam cups,” attorneys wrote in their motion to the court. A medical expert for the plaintiffs concluded that men who work on the Farm Line in extreme heat are “at substantial risk of serious heat-related disorders,” including fainting, heat cramps, and heat stroke, which can cause death or “permanent disability.” 

The plaintiffs allege that staff provide water to Farm Line workers that is “dirty and full of insects.” Damion Thompson, who was incarcerated at Angola as of last summer, told the court the heat in the fields is “unbearable” and that he drank dirty water to “avoid passing out.” He said he was forced to work on the Farm Line even though he has nerve damage from a gunshot wound.

In the state’s response to the court, officials claimed they give laborers water jugs with caps and that the containers are sanitized daily. Officials say that thanks to Farm Line labor, prisoners at Angola “enjoy fresh vegetables at least twice a day.” They also raised concerns that a ruling prohibiting Farm Line work at heat indexes above 88 degrees “would effectively open the flood gates to cease any and all work in any institution across the South.” 

Advocates and experts say incarcerated people throughout the country bear the brunt of the worsening climate crisis. In addition to working outside in brutally hot weather, many are locked in prisons without air conditioning. These facilities are typically made of heat-retaining steel and concrete and have minimal air circulation. Prison officials often provide limited access to showers, drinking water, and ice. Items that could provide a modicum of relief, like fans or cooling towels, are sold at high commissary markups.

Judge Jackson’s ruling noted that Farm Line workers must buy their own sunglasses at the commissary or go without. (In April, The Appeal published commissary lists from prisons in 46 states; Louisiana was one of four states that did not provide records.)

The stakes are particularly high in Louisiana, where incarcerated people faced the hottest summer on record last year, according to the complaint. At Angola, the heat index surpassed 88 degrees almost every day between May 1 and October 31. It reached as high as 156 degrees in August.

Jackson acknowledged the state’s increasingly extreme temperatures, writing that the “worsening climate situation in Louisiana” compounded the risks to workers on the Farm Line.

In an email to The Appeal before Jackson’s ruling, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department Of Public Safety & Corrections called the allegations in the lawsuit “baseless” and claimed the agency takes “very seriously the health and welfare” of all incarcerated people.

Amid last summer’s heat, Louisiana prisons “adjusted their outdoor work hours to have work assignments be during the cooler morning hours,” the spokesperson said. He added that the prison’s heat precaution protocols require staffers to provide Farm Line workers with water, ice, and a rest break every 30 minutes when the heat index reaches 88 degrees. Additionally, people who are on certain medications or have certain medical conditions are prohibited from working outdoors between May and October when the heat index exceeds 88 degrees, he said.

Jackson rebuffed many of the state’s assertions in his ruling Tuesday. People with “serious illnesses or pre-existing conditions were laboring in the field under no work restrictions,” he concluded after a review of emergency sick-call medical records from April to May 15. One of these men had AIDS. Another 53-year-old man had a history of pre-diabetes, asthma, fainting, knee pain, and osteoarthritis, according to the ruling.

Jackson found a “wealth of evidence” that people on the Farm Line are not provided with shade, sunscreen, or required rest breaks. The statements from Farm Line workers “uniformly provide that breaks are seldomly given, that the water is dirty, that they are required to work beyond their physical capacities, and that they are not provided with other necessary protective equipment.” The ruling notes that state officials “contest these claims, but not persuasively.”

The plaintiffs submitted several statements to the court from people who have worked on the Farm Line. Nate Walker said he was punished for having trouble standing and walking while working on the Farm Line in 2017. 

“I notified the guards that I was not feeling good, but I was ignored,” he said in his statement to the court. “When I tried to walk, I began to sway. The guards called medical and told them that I was intoxicated.”

Walker received a disciplinary write-up for intoxication. According to state officials, Walker is currently on heat-related duty status, which means he cannot be assigned to work in hot environments. 

Another plaintiff, Darrius Williams, said he fainted on one occasion while working on the Farm Line. The next day, staff told him to return to work. When he refused, he was placed on lockdown, a form of solitary confinement, for five days and denied canteen privileges for a week. On another occasion, Williams said he was put in solitary confinement for a month because he refused to work on the Farm Line without the proper protective clothing. Williams does not currently have a job assignment, according to state officials. 

Plaintiff Myron Smith told the court that when he works on the Farm Line he has bought his own water because the provided water is “dirty, in a moldy cooler that often contains dead insects.” Workers often have no place to use the bathroom, and when portable toilets are available, they’re “extremely unsanitary,” Smith said. He added that prison staff regularly ignores heat advisories. 

“The heat and humidity in the fields are unbearable,” Smith said. “I often feel woozy, dehydrated, and dizzy.”

Smith earns two cents an hour for his labor. 

“I only work on the Farm Line to avoid serious harm and punishment, like solitary confinement and loss of phone time and canteen access,” he said.