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‘That Man Can’t Breathe’

A sheriff’s deputy in Louisiana is caught on video choking a man after he says he asked for COVID-19 treatment.

On April 3, Bradford Skinner, a prisoner at the East Baton Rouge Work Release facility, sought treatment for COVID-19-like symptoms. Through his attorney, Skinner told The Appeal that medical workers at the Louisiana facility simply gave him honey, ginger, and lemon, and told him to make tea to treat his ailments. Prison medical staff then sent the 39 year-old father of three back to his cell.

The next day, Skinner again told medical workers that he was feeling sick and believed that he might have the novel coronavirus. This time, Skinner’s attorney says, the warden told him that if he “kept it up” he’d “show [Skinner] what he’d do to him” and threatened to write him up for inciting a riot. Later that day, a source inside the facility filmed a group of two correctional officers and one East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Deputy choking Skinner against a railing until he crumpled seemingly unconscious into a heap.

Through a spokesperson, East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Warden Dennis Grimes wrote in an email to The Appeal that Skinner tried to escape the day of the incident. (A private contractor, Louisiana Workforce LLC, runs the facility for the sheriff’s office.)

“The incident that you have a partial video of is related to a call our prison received from the Louisiana Work Release facility asking for assistance,” Grimes wrote. “According to their staff, the inmate in question had attempted to escape by jumping from a moving van and attempted to assault a guard before trying to escape again and incite a riot. The inmate continued to refuse compliance and then would not move for transportation. He was taken to our facility and checked out by medical and cleared for booking into the prison where he currently remains in good health. Louisiana Workforce staff stated that he will additionally be charged with Escape, Assault and Inciting a Riot.”

But Skinner told The Appeal that the facility is concocting charges against him to cover up for what actually happened that day.

“I am being punished for being sick,” he said through his attorney. “If this wasn’t on camera, it would have been swept under the rug and fell on deaf ears.”    

The Appeal obtained footage of the April 4 incident. In the video, three law enforcement officers—one sheriff’s deputy and two guards—wrench Skinner’s body over a black metal railing as other prisoners stand and watch. The sheriff’s deputy wraps his hand around the back of Skinner’s throat as the three men fold Skinner’s torso over the railing, appearing to cut off his air supply. After about 20 seconds, Skinner’s body goes limp. Skinner then crumples to the ground, seemingly unconscious, after the officers release him.

“That man can’t breathe! Look!” one man incarcerated at the facility shouts just after Skinner hits the ground. Officers then hogtie Skinner’s feet together as he lays motionless on the concrete.

“EBR [East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office] got him,” another person says. 

Skinner, still unconscious, was then transferred to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, a notoriously deadly facility.

In an email, the sheriff’s office claims that the video clip shows “the deputy and staff attempting to put leg restraints on the inmate while he was refusing to stand and had been spitting on the deputy and staff.”  

The sheriff’s office wrote that it would be an “officer safety issue” to identify the deputy who choked Skinner. Spokesperson Casey Rayborn Hicks also said the other guards involved work for Louisiana Workforce LLC and that she therefore could not identify them.  

Assistants at the East Baton Rouge Work Release twice declined to connect The Appeal with a warden or Louisiana Workforce LLC spokesperson for comment. 

William Most, Skinner’s attorney, told The Appeal that the video shows that the sheriff’s deputy engaged in excessive force against his client. 

“It is unconstitutional to choke someone by the throat to the point of unconsciousness when they are handcuffed and exhibiting only passive resistance,” Most said.

The video lays bare the difficulties incarcerated people face when seeking treatment for COVID-19, including substandard medical care and the threat of punishment. Louisiana is one of the country’s most incarcerated states, and it is also grappling with one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. As of April 16, more than 22,000 Louisianans had contracted the virus and 1,156 had died. According to the Los Angeles Times, Louisiana has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in the U.S., behind only New York and New Jersey. 

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office has also directly been impacted by COVID-19. On April 5, Sergeant Gregory Warren, who oversaw a prison transport division that drove incarcerated people between local jails and courthouses, died of COVID-19. Warren was reportedly the first local law enforcement officer to die of the coronavirus in the Baton Rouge area. This month, The Advocate also reported that several guards and incarcerated people in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison tested positive for the virus. (In March, The Advocate reported that the sheriff’s office released more than 100 people incarcerated at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison that month as COVID-19 began spreading. As of last month, the jail still housed at least 1,200 people.)

Civil-rights groups have blasted the Louisiana Department of Corrections’s coronavirus-preparedness plans: Instead of quickly decarcerating, the state has slowly released people and moved COVID-19-positive people to Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in America.

On April 14, attorneys representing prisoners filed a class action lawsuit against Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards over the plan to move incarcerated people to Angola.

Likewise, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office also has a long history of in-custody deaths and excessive force allegations. Between 2012 and October 2019, more than 40 people died in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison under the watch of Sheriff Sid Gautreaux. Despite that fact, Gautreaux, who first took office in 2007, was re-elected in October 2019.

Advocates for prison reform in Baton Rouge told The Appeal that it has been difficult to obtain information about COVID-19 from the sheriff’s office.  “One of our big concerns before this crisis even started is that there is no [independent] monitoring of the medical staff inside the prison,” said Reverend Alexis Anderson of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “We’ve been trying to push the parish to put a monitor in there for a long time, since they’ve obviously had a ridiculously high number of deaths to begin with prior to this.”

Anderson says that, in March, her group met with representatives from both the sheriff’s office and the parish government. During that meeting, Anderson’s group asked for better screening protocols for prisoners and for transparent reporting of COVID-19 infection rates. She says those requests haven’t been fulfilled and that incarcerated people are only screened for coronavirus if they ask for medical care. 

“We were chasing the clock to make sure that we could get the facility into a decent health model before something like this thing broke out in the jails,” she said. “We were always concerned, but from the stories we’re hearing anecdotally from families, there’s mega pressure not to have these things reported out in the public right now.”

Skinner says his treatment shows the lengths some prison facilities will go to avoid admitting just how unprepared they are to deal with the coronavirus. Most told The Appeal that the claim that his client tried to “escape” the facility is absurd.

“He was working at a Wendy’s on Highland Road,” Most said. “If he wanted to escape, he wouldn’t have to jump from a van. He could just walk away.”