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Louisiana Prisoners Held In Notorious Isolation Unit Are Facing A ‘Slow-Moving Disaster’

Criminal justice advocates have called Camp J at the Louisiana State Penitentiary ‘a dungeon.’ Now it’s housing prisoners who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Kendrick Wilson was wracked by body pains, cough, and congestion. He had a fever of 102.5 degrees. On April 9, he was tested for COVID-19. The result was positive. 

Wilson was being held pretrial at the East Baton Rouge Prison. That meant that, instead of isolating at home or going to a hospital, he was placed in handcuffs and leg irons and driven over an hour away to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. There, he was placed in Camp J, Louisiana’s notorious solitary confinement unit, which now serves as a quarantine site for people in parish jails and state prisons. 

Louisiana has over 23,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and 1,156 deaths. Among them are 81 confirmed COVID-19 cases in state prisons and at least another 50 among federal prisoners at FCI Oakdale, an 1800-bed low-security prison complex

“What we’re facing right now is a slow-moving disaster,” said Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative. On Tuesday, Montagnes and PJI, along with the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed suit against Governor John Bel Edwards, the Department of Corrections, and the Louisiana Department of Health for violating Wilson’s and other incarcerated people’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The suit attempts to stop the transfer of prisoners with coronavirus to Camp J and instead force the state to provide proper medical testing and care for people behind bars.

Originally built in 1976 as a stand-alone disciplinary segregation unit, Camp J has four buildings. One was an open dormitory and three were cellblocks where people were held in solitary. Placement in Camp J was supposed to be for serious rules violations, such as fighting with a weapon, but some were placed there for actions as minor as having a pack of cigarettes or refusing to go to work.    

Advocates for criminal justice reform have called it a “dungeon.” Even the prison’s warden Darryl Vanoy pushed for its closure in 2017, noting that, within one year, 85 correction officers assigned to Camp J had resigned, retired, or were fired. Now, however, Angola’s shuttered buildings are reopening for the quarantine of men in state prisons and local jails who test positive for COVID-19. 

The DOC did not respond to a request for comment.

At Camp J, Wilson lives in the open dormitory building with 39 other people. Physical isolation is impossible and, according to the suit, many are continually coughing and some are hooked up to IVs or oxygen masks. Two nurses check on him twice a day; he has been given Tylenol and sinus medications. The CDC recommends that medical isolation should end when a patient meets pre-established criteria in consultation with clinical providers and public health officials. In Camp J, however, Wilson has been told that, regardless of his medical symptoms, he will be transferred from medical isolation in 10 days. 

On April 1, PJI and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to halt the state’s plans to transfer people from jails and other prisons to Camp J and Louisiana State Penitentiary where over half of the population is over age 50 and/or has high-risk medical conditions. Transferring people with COVID-19, they argued, “is highly likely to lead to an outbreak of COVID-19 that could literally decimate the elderly and medically vulnerable population of LSP. Dozens if not hundreds of Class members may die. And even those who do not contract COVID19 could face serious harm.”

Montagnes and other advocates voice concerns about plans to move people from parishes which have better-equipped medical facilities and ventilators, to LSP, which has no ventilators and is 25 miles from the nearest hospital, and is “even further from the nearest hospital of any meaningful size.” Under the DOC plan, a patient needing serious medical care must be transported to Baton Rouge or New Orleans for hospitalization.  

Louisiana State Penitentiary has had a long history of inadequate medical care. In 2015, people incarcerated at the prison filed Lewis v Cain, alleging that the prison’s medical care violated their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The court allowed it to move forward as a class-action suit of “all inmates who [are] now, or will be in the future, incarcerated at LSP.”  

On February 21, Judge Shelly D. Dick of the Middle District of Louisiana stated that the court is prepared to find that the prison’s medical care is “unconstitutional in some respects and is prepared to order injunctive relief addressing conditions which the Court finds unconstitutional.” However, Montagnes noted that the relief would not come fast enough to address the rapid spread of COVID-19. 

It’s unclear whether the New Orleans sheriff’s office has or will be transferring people to Camp J. However, the Baton Rouge sheriff’s office transferred at least four people to Angola after they tested positive for COVID-19. According to Darryl Gissel of the Baton Rouge mayor’s office, as of April 9, two other people were hospitalized for treatment and an (unspecified) number of others had tested positive and were awaiting transfer, most likely to Angola. By April 11, at least 40 people had been transferred to Camp J from jails and prisons around the state.

“We get emails and phone calls from families who are in a complete panic,” said Reverend Alexis Anderson of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. She noted that, as in jails nationwide, the majority of people in the Baton Rouge jail are detained because they can’t afford bail. “They haven’t had their day in court,” she told The Appeal, yet “they’re being transferred to a maximum-security prison, to the most notorious one in history.”

Advocates worry that fears of being placed in isolation at Camp J will deter incarcerated people across Louisiana from reporting symptoms—and thus increase their risk of spreading COVID-19 to others. Amend, a correctional health program at the University of California, San Francisco, notes: “Separating people who become infected is a necessary public health challenge, particularly in prisons and jails. But turning to the punitive practice of solitary confinement in response to the COVID-19 crisis will only make things worse.”

“It’s a terrible idea,” said Jerome Morgan, who was isolated in Camp J four times during his 20-year incarceration on a wrongful conviction. Morgan has been out of prison since 2014, when his conviction was overturned, but still remembers the traumas of Camp J. He was locked in a 6-by-9 concrete cell nearly 24 hours each day; any time he was taken out of his cell—to shower or to go to rec inside a slightly larger cage—he was placed in handcuffs and leg irons. He could never escape the constant screaming and yelling from men in the surrounding cells. Morgan never sought medical care while isolated at Camp J, in part because he distrusted the prison’s health care system. 

Isolating people in Camp J because they have COVID-19, says Morgan, “is like punishing them for being sick.” He notes that both COVID-19 and incarceration have disproportionately hit African American communities: African Americans comprise 33 percent of Louisiana’s population, but 66 percent of the state’s jail and prison population. Across the state, African Americans comprise nearly 60 percent of COVID deaths.  

Forty-nine-year-old Patrick Jones was one of those deaths. On March 28, Jones, serving a 27-year sentence at FCI Oakdale, became the first federal prisoner to die of COVID-19 complications. Since then, another six people have died at Oakdale.

On April 6, six men at Oakdale filed suit for immediate release under their Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. The five plaintiffs, ranging from ages 35 to 58, all have preexisting health conditions; they’re seeking class-action status for all current and future people incarcerated at Oakdale and a subclass of medically vulnerable people. The suit describes a prison where social distancing is impossible—phones and sinks are two feet apart. The prison camp has eight working sinks, eight toilets, and “five or six” working showers for approximately 125 men. The suit goes on to charge that there is no liquid soap in the dispensers, no hand sanitizer, and no clean hand towels. Beds are three feet apart from each other in barracks-style housing.

Meanwhile, Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told The Appeal that his office continues to receive dozens of calls from people in Oakdale. The men report being “crammed like sardines” or tell him, “We’ve heard of social distancing but there’s no way for us to do that here.” 

However, Oakdale officials have since identified only 70 of approximately 1,800 people eligible for release to home confinement. The slow response—and the rapid spread of COVID-19 within Oakdale—prompted the ACLU to file an emergency motion on April 13 for the “expedited, responsible release of medically-vulnerable” people from Oakdale to locations where they are able to practice social distancing, a motion that would result in the release of 700 people. The motion also seeks the appointment of a public health expert to oversee changes at Oakdale to ensure social distancing, infection prevention, and treatment of those who remain in the prisons.