In May, a group of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, laid down and refused to work. After the work stoppage, they continued organizing in anticipation of a nationwide prison strike planned for Aug. 21. But one of the movement’s leaders was abruptly transferred to a new facility after two decades in Angola in what his family claims was a retaliatory measure.
On June 20, Ronald Brooks recorded a Facebook Live video with a contraband cell phone, his face obscured by fabric. The post explained the purpose and goals of the group he had been helping to build, Decarcerate Louisiana. The group was also organizing the inmates to take part in the nationwide prison protests, planned to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the death of George Jackson, a Black Panther, while he was incarcerated in San Quentin. “Decarcerate Louisiana is a human rights movement advocating for human rights and human dignity of people inside and outside of the prison,” he said in the video. “We are anti-slavery and are organizing to transform our ghettos into communities and our jails and prisons into places of human redemption.”
He argued that the loophole in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery for all but those convicted of a crime “must go.” Prisoners across the country are sometimes paid nothing for their work, and in Louisiana the Prison Policy Initiative reports that they are paid 4 cents to $1 an hour for jobs both supporting the prison facility and work that gets sold to outside agencies and businesses, much of it heavy field labor.
“Please join us in our organizing to change the laws to abolish slavery in the jails and prisons and to tear down ghettos that serve as a pipeline to prison,” Brooks said, leaving information for how to donate and support the organization’s work.
A few days later, his family said, he was transferred out of Angola to the David Wade Correctional Center, a notorious facility in North Louisiana that has faced more than 200 federal lawsuits from inmates since it opened in 1980. Brooks had been held at Angola since he was incarcerated at age 19; he turns 40 this year.
Brooks’s mother and sister say that Jerry Goodwin, a warden at David Wade, told them Brooks was transferred as punishment for having the cell phone and because he had been organizing his fellow prisoners to take part in the nationwide protest. Goodwin did not return multiple requests for comment.
The Department of Corrections “transferred him out to kind of break up anything that’s going on, any communication or things like that to try to stop them from moving forward with their rights,” his mother, Margrette Peppers Ray, said.
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections confirmed to The Appeal that Brooks had been moved, but disputed that the transfer was in retaliation for his organizing work or for having a cell phone. “Any offender sentenced to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections may be transferred at any time to any appropriate facility,” communications director Ken Pastorick said in an email. “Transfers are not punitive in nature and are not part of the disciplinary process.”
Ray said her son had been caught with a cell phone in the past, which typically resulted in its confiscation and the loss of some privileges. “They don’t just take you out,” she said. “To be moved totally from a facility [has] to do with the fact that they knew that Ronald was being a human rights advocate. … What they wanted to do was to move him away … because he was an organizer.”
It also wouldn’t be the first time that the Department of Corrections was accused of transferring a prisoner in retaliation. William Kissinger was transferred from Angola to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center for 20 months before being returned to Angola in September. He had previously been at Angola for 27 years. The abrupt transfer came after Kissinger started corresponding with a reporter at The Advocate for a series of articles on Angola. The DOC ended up settling a lawsuit by agreeing to return him to Angola and reinstate him in his former job at his previous pay rate.
The impact of being moved to a new and unfamiliar facility has taken a toll on Brooks and his family. “It’s a huge change, it’s a huge shock,” Brooks’s sister, Key, said. “To just uproot him from a place that he’s been for over 20 years.”
His family members haven’t been told whether and when he might return to Angola, and the DOC didn’t respond to repeated inquiries.
But the transfer hasn’t discouraged Brooks from organizing. He sent his mother a declaration that he and 10 other prisoners signed, and she shared it with The Appeal. In it, they accuse the Department of Corrections of subjecting them to “inhumane conditions” at David Wade, including temperatures of 100 or more degrees without air conditioning, enough fans, or ice. To cool off, the declaration says they have to lie on the concrete floor or put their feet in toilet water. It also alleges that they are made to wear “thick, hot jumpsuits” all day in that weather, all of which has led to heat exhaustion.
The DOC didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on the allegations.
Since Brooks entered Angola, he has been concerned about the conditions he has witnessed, Ray said. “He’s been an organizer going on something like years and years,” she said, and noted that social media and access to cell phones in recent years allowed him to do it on a larger scale.
“The thing about Ronald … even though he’s incarcerated, he’s always concerned about what he can do to help the conditions,” Ray said. “He’s really trying to help and bring attention and shed light on what’s going on.”