A Death Sentence Behind Bars

Mass Incarceration

     New Orleans   Louisiana is a funny place.  New Orleans makes us stand out, and we have our neighboring states of Mississippi, Arkansas, and sometimes even Texas, to make us look better than perhaps we really are.  Recently, we have become the benchmark for delta variant horror in the pandemic as possibly the worst in the country on any given day.  If that weren’t enough, our inability to protect the health and well-being of people in our jails and prisons is also gaining national attention, as I found when I opened the New Yorker from our mail stack and was greeted with the lead piece, Dying Behind Bars.

Don’t get me wrong.  Part of this is a good news story because it highlights the work of a local woman, Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, who, with huge help from her law students, has been collecting the data on the condition of prisoners in Louisiana’s jails and prisons, their living, and their dying, while writing reports and law review articles and advising grassroots groups about the situation.  Look at the MacArthur awards next year, and I’ll bet money that you’ll see her name, and good for her!

What she has found is the bad news.  In East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, she found twenty-five deaths between 2012 and 2016, most of them black men, and 22 of the 25 were in jail waiting for trial, and therefore not imprisoned based on any verdict, but based on the inability to pay bail.  The US Department of Justice has long noted that Louisiana has the highest per-capita incarceration rate, and, not surprisingly, we also have “the highest in-custody mortality rate.”  Armstrong has another database and website called Incarceration Transparency, which shows a map and allows viewers to see a list of the people who have died in those facilities.  Her team gathered the information with freedom of information requests, although more than 20% of the facilities ignored the requests, forcing her to consider whether she will have to sue under the Act to get the data.

It’s tragic in every way.  As the article notes:

…Armstrong, who recently published a report that examined seven hundred eighty-six deaths in Louisiana facilities between 2015 and 2019 …[found that] “Only fifty percent of medical deaths we coded were from a preexisting condition, which means fifty percent of them were not.”

That’s bone-chilling and horrifying.

Interestingly, for Armstrong, none of this is about abolishing all incarceration, defunding police, or even prison and jail construction.  Her core argument is that neither Louisiana nor any state she has studied is spending the time and money to focus on “the living conditions of the people still confined.”

I read a book a couple of years ago about the horrific slaughter in Sweden of young people.  The conditions of the murderer’s life imprisonment included his own suite, access to a computer, television, and other, dare I say, amenities.  It was impossible to not compare how other countries still accord basic human rights, when in Louisiana and America, even the accused, much less the convicted, are routinely caged in “cruel and unusual” conditions.

Armstrong is right.  This is an indictment of our entire society.  It demands to be changed.