Criminal Justice
 

Pondering ‘our suicide place’ — solitary confinement in Louisiana

Camp J, beyond the gates of the sprawling prison farm at Angola, condemns recalcitrant inmates to conditions that have been likened to torture.

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Camp J, beyond the gates of the sprawling prison farm at Angola, condemns recalcitrant inmates to conditions that have been likened to torture.

We often hear about the brutalizing of male inmates through solitary confinement. I’ve been personally touched by it, having suffered the loss of a good friend, Terrance Carter, to suicide while on lockdown at Angola’s Camp J, a hellhole where over 300 inmates spend months, even years, for infractions of prison rules.

Recently, I’ve been hearing similar stories from St. Gabriel’s, as the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women is commonly called. A new friend, Maryam Henderson-Uloho, spent 12½ years at St. Gabriel’s and knows this world all too well. A strong-willed African American of Muslim faith, she was sent repeatedly to “the hole” for minor “infractions,” like refusing to take “that rag” (hijab) off her head when told to do so or for notifying outside prison monitors when she saw fellow inmates abused.

What she experienced was bad enough, but even more disturbing are the stories she tells of other women remanded to solitary at St. Gabriel’s. Here is Maryam talking about Rose Davis: “She was famous inside the prison. She stayed in lockdown a lot and had probably been at St. Gabriel’s for some 20 years. When she was younger, they beat her so bad, they broke her legs and she had difficulty walking and had to eventually get into a wheelchair. The way they would beat women — that was something I could never get over. She hadn’t been given life, but Rose died in prison. Because she was a firecracker to the end, her medical attention was so poor. When they finally got Rose out of the wheelchair in the hole for treatment, what looked like rice at the bottom of the chair wasn’t rice. It was maggots. Part of her body was actually rotting way.”

And here Maryam tells some of the story of an inmate called Rough Rider, who had been “a motorcycle girl”:  “She wasn’t scared of nobody; she stood up to the guards and they brutalized her too. Rough Rider wasn’t as strong as the black girls physically, but mentally she was strong. She got real sick with pneumonia and other illnesses. She would go to the infirmary, but they would keep sending her back to the hole. Later she collapsed in the hall, and they told her they would beat her if she didn’t get back in her cell. She never got off the floor. She died right there. That time she was in the hole for months, maybe a year.”

Maryam’s stories of abuse at St. Gabriel go on and on and will one day make for a stunning prison memoir, I hope. My most direct exposure to this world of cruelty and pain was through my friend Terrance Carter and his time at Camp J. Terrance’s death was one of two suicides at Camp J last April 2. I had visited Terrance monthly for nearly four years on death row before he was sent to Camp J for some infraction of prison rules.

For many years I had heard of the cruelty at Camp J. Once, as part of a small group discussion I was leading with inmate trusties at Angola’s Camp F, four of the men spoke of trying to serve Christ while “walking the tiers” at Camp J, the prison job they had been assigned. They recalled intervening in the prevention of several suicides — a very laudable service to troubled lives but also confirmation of Camp J’s brutality. When I visited Terrance the last time, shortly before he killed himself, he told me he longed to be back on death row. “At least there,” he said, “I was treated as a human being and not a caged animal.”

When I talk to civic and church groups about Terrance’s suicide, I am amazed how few people in Louisiana know about Camp J — even in the largely black community represented by groups like Justice and Beyond, where leaders strongly advocate for prison reform. (Nearly 80 percent of the men and women we incarcerate in Louisiana are African American, compared to about a third of the state population.) At a Justice and Beyond forum on solitary confinement, I asked the 150 or so attendees how many knew of Camp J. Only a handful raised their hands.

Sister Helen Prejean’s book “Dead Man Walking,” the powerful indictment of capital punishment that was later a major movie, drew attention to Angola’s death row and prompted prison authorities to make it a more humane place for condemned inmates to spend their last days. Equal attention must be paid to our suicide place, Camp J. I call it “ours” advisedly: We taxpayers finance it; we own it — both morally and financially.

On April 8, six days after Terrance’s death, the The Times-Picayune published an op-ed I had written about the inhumane treatment at Camp J that led to his suicide. Ten days later, I received notice from the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections that I would no longer be allowed to do volunteer work at Angola. In recent years, besides visiting Terrance, I had been serving as an Episcopal clergyman at worship services in Angola, leading a national Episcopal program, the Disciples of Christ in Community, and volunteering with the Kairos Prison Ministry International.

I will continue to bear witness to the cruelty at Camp J in any way I can. I was not only Terrance’s “spiritual adviser” but, as I would often tell him, “a brother in Christ.” He called me the same. Once, full of drugs, he did a terrible thing that led to his incarceration, but he had found new life in what we spoke of as “the love of Christ.”

He would always begin his letters to me this way: “An incredible God deserves incredible praise.” In one letter he wrote: “On December 29, my son turned seven years old. I never seen him a day in my life. But I love him and miss him as if I were privileged to spend every day with him since he was born. At night he is the last thought before I fall asleep. …  As I fall asleep, I ask God to kiss my son for me.” Had Terrance lived and ever gotten out of prison, he would have been welcome in our home in New Orleans.

Which brings me to a simple question: Why in the world do we in Louisiana — indeed, in most of the 50 states — allow policy makers to send our women and men to places like “the hole” at St. Gabriel’s and Camp J at Angola? Solitary — which is relieved by one hour per day in a cage outside the cell for the prisoner to stretch his or her legs — destroys lives. Maryam developed a heart condition that her doctor links directly to the stress she endured in the hole. And, well short of physical debilitation and suicide, solitary makes many inmates more dangerously violent if and when they are returned to the general prison population or released to society.

Defenders of solitary confinement argue that it is a tool necessary for maintaining prison discipline. There are far more effective alternatives. Prison programming that allows inmates to continue their education and develop skills useful in the small city that is Angola or St. Gabriel — or back in the “free world,” should they ever get there — can be administered in ways that reinforce positive behavior, rather than just punish infractions of prison rules.

Then there are powerful opportunities rooted in faith like the ones I’m involved in. Another ministry comparable to Kairos is Prison Fellowship International, founded in 1976 by the late Chuck Colson, as he did time for criminality associated with the Watergate scandal. Such programs give inmates, even those with very violent backgrounds, what they need most — what we all need most of all: respect and hope.

Fortunately, both conservative leaders like columnist George Will and the billionaire Koch brothers have seen the light and have begun to advocate against long-term solitary confinement and other outgrowths of America’s now subsiding mania for mass-incarceration. President Obama, another foe of such practices, has pointed out that there are as many as 100,000 men and women in solitary confinement in this country.

Clearly we have a long way to go, a very long way to go. If the voting public will not respond to the cruelty, maybe we will respond to the expense. Compare what it costs to keep women and men in solitary instead of letting them work at prison jobs that save taxpayers many millions. Think of the huge workforce at Angola, for example, that keeps that penitentiary — the largest in the nation — functioning year after year, decade after decade. In the words of Pete Seeger: “When will we ever learn?”

The Rev. William Barnwell.

William Barnwell

The Rev. William Barnwell.

The Rev. William Barnwell, an Episcopal priest, is the author of four books tracing his evolution as a Christian, from boyhood in segregated Charleston, S.C., to the continuing struggle against racism in New Orleans today. His latest book, expanding on these and other stories from his work with Kairos, is “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted,” published by the University Press of Mississippi.

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