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Louisiana State Prison Obstructs Investigation into Disability Abuse Allegations - Federal Lawsuit Brought by Advocacy Group Asks Court to Order Access

LOUISIANA - A federal lawsuit argues that the Louisiana Department of Corrections and David Wade Correctional Center (DWCC) have deliberately impeded an investigation into allegations of serious neglect and abuse of prisoners with disabilities.

The suit is brought forth by the MacArthur Justice Center of New Orleans and the Advocacy Center of Louisiana, which has been designated as the statewide protection and advocacy system for individuals with disabilities. Under federal law, the Advocacy Center has the right and authority to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, monitor facility conditions and provide protection and advocacy services to specific prisoners with disabilities. Federal statute also provides them with broad access rights to prisoners’ facilities and facility records.

As part of this federally mandated authority, the Advocacy Center is investigating DWCC for serious claims of abuse and neglect. These claims include failing to provide meaningful mental healthcare services, failing to identify individuals with significant mental illnesses, and using solitary confinement as an alternative to mental health treatment. 

“Congress created federal statutes providing oversight of institutions that house people with mental illness and other disabilities to ensure that people are not subject to abuse,” said Ron Lospennato, attorney with the Advocacy Center. “This case raises exactly the sort of concerns those statutes were created to address.”

As part of it investigation, the Advocacy Center alerted the Department of Corrections of the need to schedule a site visit to tour the unit and speak with incarcerated individuals. However, when the investigation team – composed of attorneys from the Advocacy Center and the MacArthur Justice Center – arrived on site, the DWCC officials refused to allow them to talk to people in the housing units.  Staff condensed the requested day-long tour into one hour, and they refused to answer questions, provide access to employees, or allow investigators to access other parts of the unit.

Throughout the site visit, investigators were met with cries for help from prisoners with obvious disabilities, many held in paper gowns. Despite hearing repeated pleas of “I need help” and “please help me”, investigators were prevented from having any communication with these individuals, even to determine the basis of their requests or the nature of any harms.

“Many of the men literally cried out to us for help. Others were in a seemingly-catatonic state. The staff moved several prisoners to another area to prevent our speaking with them,” said Katie Schwartzmann, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center and authorized investigator with the Advocacy Center. “The staff engaged in deliberate obstruction of our investigation. They clearly are trying to prevent outside scrutiny, also denying us access to talk to a man on suicide watch. We are very concerned for peoples’ safety, and about what they are trying to hide.”

Staff further obstructed the investigation process by stationing officers in proximity to conversations and refusing to allow any documents to be passed between investigators and prisoners. Prisoners who did attempt to bring information to investigators were disciplined, and investigators’ requests to meet with those individuals were rejected. The investigators were not even allowed to provide prisoners with their names.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, Baton Rouge Division, naming as Defendants James M. LeBlanc, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, as well as Jerry Goodwin, Warden and Lonnie Nail, Colonel at David Wade Correctional Center.  The lawsuit alleges that Defendants actively interfered with an investigation and, in doing so, violated the rights and authority awarded to the Advocacy Center and its investigators under the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act (“PAIMI Act”), the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 200 (“PADD Act”) and the Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights Program (“PAIR Act”).

Because the Defendants are interfering with these rights, the lawsuit asks the court for a temporary restraining order to fulfill its mandate, enforcing full access to carry out the investigation and speak with prisoners, including access to provide information and receive documentation.

 A copy of the court filings are available here:

Complaint

Memo in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for TRO and Prelimiary Injunction

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