The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Officials at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola have kept some prisoners in “disciplinary segregation” longer than the prison’s disciplinary protocols call for, leading to a hunger strike starting last week among several people incarcerated at the prison, who say they have been locked in their cells for over 23 hours a day, being let out only to shower.

On Monday afternoon, the Louisiana Department of Corrections confirmed that there were three people still on hunger strike at the prison and also confirmed that the prisoners had been held in disciplinary segregation past the amount of time that was determined by the “disciplinary sanctions matrix” for the rules infraction that they had violated. 

“Depending upon the nature of the appropriate housing, bed space may not be immediately available, in which case the inmate is held in the disciplinary segregation unit until the bed becomes available,” said Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the DOC, in a Monday email. “In this case, the appropriate housing for these inmates, due to their custody levels/nature of violations, is working cellblock or one man cells. This custody level bed space is not yet available.”

Pastorick did not respond to questions as to whether the hunger strike was still ongoing following his Monday statement. Nor did he say whether any of the participants have been transferred out of disciplinary segregation. 

“It’s like mental torture,” said Frederick Ross, one of the prisoners involved in the strike. “Eight months I haven’t seen any sunlight.” 

The Lens spoke to eight people in the prison who said they stopped eating the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 17, said that they were being held after the time designated for their punishment in response rules infractions were completed. Some, such as Ross, said they were being held for months passed when they were supposed to be let off the tier, others just weeks.

(Pastorick did not confirm the names of individual prisoners who were participating.)

 “We’re held here over our time,” said Donald Hensley, who is 54 years old. “Illegally. With no yard calls, no exercise, no sunshine, no clothing. No nothing.”

Hensley said he has been in disciplinary segregation for over 5 months, initially for a violation of rule 21 —  which he described as a sex offense. He said he was supposed to be transferred off the tier in January. But according to the people who spoke to The Lens, prison officials said that there is not enough bed space in other parts of the prison to transfer them off the disciplinary tier. 

“All they’re saying is, ‘We ain’t got nowhere to put you,’” Ross said. “Because of that, I’m being punished.”

Pastorick, in his statement on Monday, said that “there is no shortage of overall bed space or overcrowding in any state prison facility.”

The strikers also said that prison officials were doing everything they could to ignore or actively discourage the strike — initially refusing to acknowledge that it was even happening, failing to document the missed meals in reports, and refusing to provide medical or mental health care for the men. 

“We’re not getting any help from the administration, that’s for certain,” said another striker. “They’re doing everything they can to circumvent, and discourage, and manipulate and play games. I mean it’s ridiculous.” 

“We haven’t seen medical,” he said. “They refuse to bring us medical.” 

Pastorick said that all prisoners were being monitored and receiving medical treatment if they needed it. 

“DOC staff continuously monitors inmates placed in disciplinary segregation, which includes medical visiting the tiers daily to be certain inmates who may require medical attention are receiving it,” Pastorick said.

‘It hasn’t been good’

The men said that in segregation, they are kept in their cells for over 23 hours a day— some with cellmates, others on their own — and are only let out to shower. But even that, some said, is not guaranteed.

“We gotta fight for a shower,” said Percy Hawthorne, who is 46, and said he had been in disciplinary segregation since early November for “defiance” and “aggravated disobedience,” despite the fact that his punishment was only supposed to be 10 days. 

Frederick Ross said that for most of the time he was in disciplinary segregation, he was not allowed to purchase items from the canteen. 

“I have no property, no books, no television.” Ross said. “No, nothing.”

Several strikers said that the lights don’t work in their cells, meaning the only light is what comes in through the hallways. Hensley said that was causing him medical issues.

“It hasn’t been good,” said Hensley. “It hasn’t been good. I’ve been dealing with a situation with my eyes. I’ve never had a light in my cell since I’ve been in my cell. And I just found out I have cataracts in both eyes. I’ve been having headaches, migraines, blurred vision.”

A number of the strikers complained that being in the cell for over 23 hours a day was taking other physical tolls as well. 

“There’s no recreation, no sunlight, and I haven’t been able to stretch my joints because there’s no hall time,” Ross said. 

“We just sit here, we can’t get out to cell to walk around the hallway, the way it should be,” said another striker. “They’re supposed to give you some type of relief after you’ve been in a cell so long. They’re not doing it.”

‘They do what they want’

James Thom said he was initially sentenced to just four days on the disciplinary tier, but had been there two weeks when he spoke to The Lens. He said he was striking because he has seen the way that others have been left on the tier for much longer. 

“They’re just not acknowledging you,” Thom said. “They’re just throwing you in the cell and  forgetting about you. And you’re sitting here for four, five, six months up to a year. It’s crazy.”

Louisiana prisons have long been criticized for their overuse of restrictive housing and solitary confinement. 

A 2019 report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that between January 2015 and November 2016 “on average, 17.4 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana’s state-operated prisons were housed in some form of segregated housing, which is approximately 3.9 times the estimated national average of 4.5 percent.” 

But in recent years the Department of Corrections has also said it was taking steps to reduce their reliance on restrictive housing as a disciplinary measure.

After a critical report by the ACLU on solitary confinement and restrictive housing, a spokesperson for the DOC told The Times-Picayune/ New Orleans Advocate that the department was “testing new disciplinary policies to reduce the reliance on restrictive housing and make all prisons more consistent in enforcement.”

And the Vera report also noted that DOC was “piloting a disciplinary matrix that aims to dramatically cut the number of rule infractions eligible for segregation as a sanction and reduce lengths of stay by setting clearly defined, determinate sanctions aligned to the severity and circumstances of each infraction.”

The Department of Corrections declined to provide a copy of its disciplinary policy to The Lens.

“I don’t know how 10 days turned into 115 days,” Hawthorne said. “But they do what they want up here. They do what they want.”

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...