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Report From Inside Angola Prison Paints A Troubling Picture As Coronavirus Grips Louisiana

'We are still packed in like sardines,' writes Fate Winslow, who's serving a life sentence. 'The prison doesn't supply anything for us.'

msppmoore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Report From Inside Angola Prison Paints A Troubling Picture As Coronavirus Grips Louisiana

'We are still packed in like sardines,' writes Fate Winslow, who's serving a life sentence. 'The prison doesn't supply anything for us.'

Fate Winslow is serving life without parole at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The prison complex, which sits atop a former slave plantation, is roughly the size of Manhattan and has long been known for severe overcrowding, a notorious reputation that has taken on even more significance as COVID-19 sweeps the country. 

Winslow, 52, shares a dorm with dozens of other men, making the standard advice to practice social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic absurd. “We are still packed in like sardines,” he said in an electronic message to The Appeal. He and thousands of other men serving time there are not given much to work with to prevent infection. While the Louisiana Department of Corrections and Public Safety has said it’s supplying soap and sanitizer to prisoners, Winslow reports otherwise. “The prison doesn’t supply anything for us. No sanitizer, no masks, no hand soap, nothing.” 

Unlike a number of other states, Louisiana doesn’t appear to have plans in the works to free prisoners in response to coronavirus. In fact, prisoners from across the state who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 could be sent to Angola’s Camp J, a restrictive housing unit that drew comparisons to a dungeon before it was closed in 2018. The Department of Corrections has reopened it as an isolation facility, drawing condemnation from critics.

“This is a public health disaster in the making. Most jails and prisons are not built for social distancing, or things like hand-washing, being away from people. They eat together, the guards come in and out,” said Peter Scharf, professor of public health at the Louisiana State University New Orleans School of Public Health. “Guards are as freaked out as the inmates. The number of pathways of contagion in prison are difficult to control. The chance of someone bringing it to the population is basically a certainty.”

Parishes across Louisiana, which has seen more than 17,000 COVID-19 cases statewide, have registered some of the highest coronavirus death rates in the country. As of Thursday, there have been a total of 652 deaths reported across the state. Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he’s hopeful the infection rate is flattening, but he warned that it would continue to do so only if people follow mitigation measures like social distancing.

The state doesn’t appear to be doing much to prevent a massive explosion of cases in its jails and prisons, however, where measures like social distancing and relentless cleaning aren’t possible. A large majority of prisoners in Louisiana are black and many are old, putting them at far greater risk than the general population. Echoing a disturbing nationwide trend, more than 70 percent of Louisiana residents killed by the virus are African-American

The Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment. 

Winslow, who is black, was sentenced to life without parole after he sold $20 worth of pot to an undercover police officer in 2008. At trial, his verdict came down along racial lines; 10 white jurors voted guilty, while two black jurors voted not to convict him. His letter to The Appeal provides a glimpse inside Angola as coronavirus races across the state. Winslow observes that prison staff seem ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. “They don’t know anything more than we do. Everytime you look up, one of the people that work here is sick,” he said. “They rushed one of the kitchen workers out of the kitchen a few days ago, so I am very scared to go to the kitchen.” 

A few weeks ago, an illness swept through the prison. “We aren’t sure what it was, but I thought I was going to die. I felt so bad when I had it,” Winslow said. “Just last night, an inmate was taken out by an ambulance team. I’m not sure what was wrong with him, but the guards refused to come inside the dorm to punch the time clock until he was taken out of the dorm.” 

Earlier this week, guards started wearing face masks—a luxury not extended to prisoners. “Today all the guards showed up to work with masks on to protect themselves from us, when it is us that needs protection from them,” Winslow writes. “We are not the ones that go in and out of the prison, but we’re being treated like we are the infected.” 

Compounding the hopelessness of his situation is the fact that items from the commissary that might help him stay healthy are completely beyond reach on his salary. He makes 2 cents an hour, or 80 cents a week, cleaning the dorms. He can’t afford to buy bottled water at the canteen, and has to use the water fountain—even though he says the guards have been instructed not to. He says a call to a doctor costs $3, and if it’s an emergency, it costs $6. A very small bottle of vapor rub is $6. Cough drops are $2. A small orange juice is $1.56.

“Everything is really about a dollar,” Winslow said. “If you don’t have outside support, it’s really hard to survive.” 

Recently, Prison Enterprises, a for-profit division of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections that uses prison labor for services as diverse as furniture restoration, embroidery, and janitorial services, offered a new service geared toward inmates: “NEW! The Canteen Package Program gives family and friends an opportunity to order Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections pre-approved food and hygiene products and personal property items for their loved ones incarcerated in state institutions,” the company wrote on its website.  

The program further promises, “4 Easy Ways to Order a Food and Hygiene Package for Your Loved One!” The package costs a minimum of $20.00 and is limited to $150.00.

“Those prices are even higher than the commissary prices, so it really doesn’t pay to try to order anything from them,” Winslow said. He gets that people need to make money, but wonders how much the prisoners’ lives are worth. 

“We are in a dire situation here,” he writes. “To these people here in Louisiana, this is just business as usual. No caution for human life, no compassion, no love. It’s a business and I understand that, but what about our lives?”

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