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Angola Prisoner Says He Was Punished For Organizing Against ‘Slavery’

Ronald Brooks was helping plan a prison strike when he was abruptly transferred to a new prison hours away.

Ronald Brooks posted a Facebook Live video speaking out against "slavery in the jails and prisons."
Photo illustration by Anagraph/Decarcerate Louisiana Facebook

Angola Prisoner Says He Was Punished For Organizing Against ‘Slavery’

Ronald Brooks was helping plan a prison strike when he was abruptly transferred to a new prison hours away.

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.”

Why Is New York Still Paying Eric Garner's Killer Six Figures?

Daniel Pantaleo remains with the NYPD four years after Garner's death.

Demonstration after grand juries failed to indict the police officers involved in the death of Michael Brown and of Eric Garner.
Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images.

Why Is New York Still Paying Eric Garner's Killer Six Figures?

Daniel Pantaleo remains with the NYPD four years after Garner's death.

July marked the fourth anniversary of Eric Garner’s death. The city of New York is still paying NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo—the man who put Eric Garner in a chokehold—six figures. The NYPD Patrol Guide prohibits chokeholds and states “excessive force will not be tolerated. [Officers] who use excessive force will be subject to Department discipline, up to and including dismissal.” Pantaleo’s employment isn’t completely surprising: In March, BuzzFeed published an investigation that showed over 300 NYPD officers who committed fireable offenses, including excessive force, were not fired.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio claims that he has been waiting for the Department of Justice (DOJ), at their request, to finish their investigation into whether the DOJ will file criminal civil rights charges against Pantaleo. Ultimately, it’s the NYPD commissioner’s decision to discipline or fire officers—and the commissioner works for the mayor. On July 16, 2018, the NYPD released a letter sent from its legal department to the DOJ, saying that the police department would proceed with disciplinary hearings if they did not hear from the government by the end of August. But in a statement sent to news outlets, the DOJ said it had given the city the green light to move forward on disciplinary charges back in the spring.

In a recent press conference with the mayor, police Commissioner James O’Neill said Lawrence Byrne, who was a deputy commissioner until the end of last month, “was not informed of that. This is something that we’ve been following very closely obviously for years. He’s had many discussions with DOJ and never at any point prior to a couple of weeks [ago] did they say it was OK to move forward.” On July 20, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s police oversight agency that can investigate NYPD misconduct claims, filed disciplinary charges against Pantaleo and will prosecute the case in a departmental trial.

For Eric Garner’s family, the letter (signed by Byrne) was nothing more than a political spectacle. “[The NYPD] letter and the Justice Department response shows that the excuse that de Blasio and the NYPD have been using for not holding officers accountable is just that: a political excuse,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said in a statement released the next day. “In fact, DOJ’s response makes very clear that there is nothing stopping the NYPD from acting immediately to discipline officers and there’s no reason to wait until September, like NYPD’s letter laid out.” On July 25, Carr confronted de Blasio at a town hall in Staten Island and accused the de Blasio administration of blocking accountability and playing political games; she also asked him to discipline all the NYPD officers who were at the scene. Mayor de Blasio responded: “I respect the NYPD’s internal disciplinary process. There is due process; it is immediately beginning, we made that very clear.” He added that only two officers will face discipline: Pantaleo and Sgt. Kizzy Adonis.

Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at University of Texas who studies civil rights litigation, said the DOJ might have asked the  NYPD to delay the disciplinary hearings for legal reasons. Specifically, the DOJ most likely doesn’t want any previous witness statements to contradict their own (since that can result in witnesses being impeached). But Laurin noted: “The DOJ can’t compel the NYPD to not do an internal investigation,” and added that, “the time that the NYPD has now waited to conduct its own investigation obviously, itself, can complicate that investigation,” because the police may no longer be able to track down witnesses.

For police brutality activists and Eric Garner’s family members, four years is way too long for de Blasio to wait when he has the power to fire Daniel Pantaleo. And Pantaleo’s future disciplinary hearing does not absolve de Blasio of failing to hold all the officers at the scene accountable.

“Here’s the reality: in the past four years, Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD could have acted at any time to deliver real accountability for Eric Garner’s killing by firing the officers who murdered him, failed to provide aid or intervene, tried to cover it up, and engaged in related misconduct,” Loyda Colon, co-director of Justice Committee and a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, told The Appeal in an email. “But Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD have played games and used delay tactics every step of the way.” Colon called on de Blasio to stop the “blatant cover-up,” make Pantaleo and Adonis face disciplinary charges and then fire them immediately, and release the names of all the officers involved in Garner’s death.

“Mayor de Blasio has not lived up to his campaign promises of reforming the NYPD and making it more transparent and accountable to impacted communities,” Colon said. “Make no mistake: If he doesn’t make this right fast, his mayoral legacy will be tainted by his failure to hold police accountable, and the fact that a major NYPD cover-up of police misconduct in the killing of Garner happened on his watch.”

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Proposed Pennsylvania Bill Would Force Patients With Chronic Pain Into A Treatment Agreement

A bill introduced in the state would require all chronic pain patients to enter into an agreement with their doctor before being prescribed opioid medication for the first time.

Women work in a recycling business operated by the American Rescue Workers in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a city that has experienced an epidemic of opioid use.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Proposed Pennsylvania Bill Would Force Patients With Chronic Pain Into A Treatment Agreement

A bill introduced in the state would require all chronic pain patients to enter into an agreement with their doctor before being prescribed opioid medication for the first time.

Proposed legislation in Pennsylvania could add more roadblocks to those seeking pain relief amid a widespread crackdowns on opioids, and even profoundly intrude into their private lives.

House Bill 2431, introduced by Representative Todd Stephens of Montgomery County, would require all chronic pain patients to enter into a treatment agreement with their doctor before being prescribed opioid medication for the first time.

Under the agreement, before opioid drugs are prescribed, patients would be required to undergo a urine screening to test for the presence of any illicit drugs. Patients would also be required to consent to regular urine screenings at their doctor’s discretion.

Stephens’s bill, which was referred to the Pennsylvania House’s Committee on Health in late May, would provide exceptions for cancer patients and for palliative care.

“Enacting public policies [like this] is necessary to address the Commonwealth’s opioid crisis and to protect the health, safety and welfare of affected citizens in Pennsylvania,” Stephens wrote in a co-sponsorship letter for his bill.

But there is little evidence that Stephens’s bill would mitigate the opioid crisis.

“This blowback is serving to deny [pain patients] the care that they need,” Terri Lewis, a professor of Rehabilitation Counseling at the National Teacher’s University of Changhua, told The Appeal.

Lewis said that the response to the opioid crisis has conflated patients who use pain medication for long-term treatment with those who have opioid use disorder.

She added that public policies that continue to impede chronic pain patients from receiving opioid medications can cut them off from treatments that “offer them a path to improved function.”

“It’s bad news all the way around,” she said.

In Oregon, meanwhile, there is a regulatory proposal that would eliminate the prescribing of all opioids to most chronic patients.

Pennsylvania already implemented prescription opioid supply-control policies, such as a drug monitoring program. The state’s former physician general, Carrie DeLone, warned that such policies would lead to an increase in overdose deaths attributed to heroin and other opiates as the supply of prescription opioids shrunk. Indeed, overdose deaths in the state nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Coroners Association.

The Stephens bill, however, targets only prescription opioids, which make up a small fraction of overdose deaths. In 2016, prescription opioids were detected in only 12 percent of fatal overdose victims in the state, according to the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association. The main drivers of overdose deaths are heroin and fentanyl, which were found in nearly half of all toxicology reports for fatal overdose victims in the state in 2016.

A recent study led by Stefan Kertesz, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Alabama,  found that reductions in prescription opioids have little impact on reducing overdose deaths.

The study’s authors called the outcomes of these supply-side policies “suboptimal,” noting “opioid prescriptions have fallen but harms to pain patients, and overdose deaths have risen.”

While evidence suggests Stephens’s bill will not reduce the number of overdose deaths in Pennsylvania, it could add a major boost to the growing industry of drug testing.

A 2017 report by Kaiser Health News found that spending on urine and genetic screenings quadrupled between 2010 and 2014 and now exceeds the total budget for the Environmental Protection Agency. The study analyzed Medicare and private insurance data and an estimated $8.5 billion was spent on these tests alone in 2014.

“I don’t know who wrote this bill, but the money being spent by various facets of industry that are trying to get their product positioned into the opioid crisis for monetizing things … it’s a heavy push,” says rehabilitation expert Lewis.  “And legislators are very vulnerable because they know nothing [about the opioid crisis].”

Stephens has insisted that his bill is based on 2016 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  guidelines for opioid prescribing. But in 2017, Pain News Network conducted a survey which asked chronic pain patients how their treatment has changed since the guidelines were put in place. More than 70 percent of respondents said their opiate prescriptions had been reduced or eliminated since the guidelines were released. Respondents also said their quality of life had also diminished; more than 80 percent said their pain had worsened, while 42 percent said they had contemplated suicide because their pain was so poorly managed. And nearly a quarter said they had begun hoarding opiate pills because they were uncertain that they would be able to obtain more from their doctor.

Nearly all of the respondents said the guidelines have been harmful to pain patients—an indication that the regulations in Stephens’s bill would deepen their suffering.


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