Several prisoners last week took part in a hunger strike at David Wade Correctional Center, a state prison in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, where they say they have been held in restrictive housing for nearly two years — locked in their cells for over 23 hours a day, let out only to shower. During that time, they say that they have been mentally and physically abused, had their personal property taken and destroyed, been denied video visitation with their attorneys, and had no opportunity to participate in educational or recreational programming. 

In a response to questions from The Lens, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Ken Pastorick, said that 15 prisoners who had been transferred to David Wade from another prison, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, following disciplinary infractions, stopped taking meals a week earlier. Eleven of them continued on the hunger strike through the weekend. One prisoner, Kermit Parker, remained on strike through Thursday. 

Parker’s wife, Marsha Parker, said in an interview that she had been told by prison officials that he had been placed on suicide watch in response to his refusal to eat.

In letters obtained by The Lens, many of the prisoners who went on hunger strike said they were told they would only stay 90 days at David Wade. Instead, they remained there, in restrictive housing, for months longer than they anticipated.

“My 90 days turned into 19 months,” one prisoner wrote. “19 months of torture, emotional abuse, and verbal sexual abuse. Physically, I’m being abused as well. My ankles and wrist have scars on them from the handcuffs and shackles that’s put on me everywhere I go.” 

Liberation News, a website by the political Party for Socialism and LIberation, first reported on the hunger strike last week. 

This is at least the second hunger strike this year among Louisiana state prisoners protesting what they say are overly restrictive housing conditions. In February, prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola initiated a hunger strike to protest being held in for weeks or months past their when the prisons disciplinary protocols called for. At the time, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections confirmed that sometimes prisoners are held in disciplinary segregation past the amount of time determined by the agency’s “disciplinary sanctions matrix” if there’s not enough bed space in other parts of the prison.

The department has faced criticism from criminal justice groups over the past several years for its over-reliance on extended solitary or restrictive confinement — which can severely impact mental health — as a disciplinary measure. 

Pastorick, with the DOC, denied many of the allegations made by the prisoners at David Wade — such as the charges that they have been denied medical and mental health treatment, had their personal belongings taken, and that the cells reach temperatures over 100 degrees. 

He also said that the prisoners that went on hunger strike had been given the opportunity to move to a “less restrictive environment” but refused that opportunity “due to their ongoing request to transfer” back to Elayn Hunt. He said the department has “ceased routine transfers in order to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.” 

Marsha Parker said she had been told by her husband that he understood that if he agreed to be moved to less punitive housing, he would become a “David Wade inmate” and forfeit his right to be transferred back to Elayn Hunt. Pastorick, however, denied that their move to a less restrictive environment would affect their ability to transfer. 

In addition to the conditions at David Wade, many of the prisoners say they want to be moved back to Elayn Hunt — located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — because it is closer to their loved ones and attorneys.

“I’m fighting tooth and nail to prove my innocence and I cannot visit with my case-criminal attorneys because they are in Baton Rouge as in my family and it would take over 10 hour round trip to drive to David Wade,” wrote Kermit Parker in a letter. “With 2 attorneys that charge over $300 each an hour it’s impossible for me to visit my counsel — because I can’t afford it.”

The prisoners’ complaints echo a recent court filing in a 2018 federal lawsuit filed on behalf of  prisoners at David Wade against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. (Attorneys representing the lead plaintiff are seeking class-action status in the suit.) The July 13 filing alleges that the facility continues to violate the constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to provide them with adequate mental health care and placing them in conditions that cause their mental health to deteriorate. It also alleges that prisoners, even those with mental illness, are held in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time.

“Incident reports from Wade chronicle people swallowing razors, self-mutilation of the face, slicing open scrotums, attempting to slice off ear, writing on the walls in blood, head-banging, eating a lightbulb, while no additional mental health services are made available at this facility,” the filing reads. “The conditions at David Wade exacerbate and cause mental illness.”

The proposed-plaintiff-class attorneys — from Disability Rights Louisiana and the ACLU of Louisiana — say that staff at David Wade regularly mock, humiliate, and actively antagonize prisoners who are in mental health crises or are being held in disciplinary segregation. It claims that a mentally ill prisoner was forced to bark like a dog for food. Another prisoner, after informing a contracted psychiatrist that his mother was addicted to crack, was called a “crack-baby” by a staff member on the tier in front of other prisoners. When a prisoner informed a staff member they were suicidal, the alleged response from a staff member was “don’t do it on my shift.” 

Pastorick said that the agency could not comment on pending litigation, but in previous filings lawyers have argued that David Wade provides adequate mental health care for prisoners and that it “appropriately uses restrictive housing to deliver public safety, staff safety, and offender safety.”

A rally in solidarity with the prisoners who went on hunger strike is planned for Friday, July 23 at 3 p.m. in front of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections offices in Baton Rouge. 

‘You cold? Are you still cold?’

The prisoners have also complained that they have not been able to participate in any educational or vocational programing during their nearly two years at David Wade. Pastorick said that “due to their custody levels and the risk they pose to staff and other inmates, they are not eligible, nor suitable for programming in a group setting.”

He said that “programming is available to these individuals upon request,” though he did not elaborate on what types of programming was available nor whether prisoners were aware of that fact. 

Some prisoners who went on hunger strike also complained about the lack of phone calls, and the fact that they have been denied video visits. Pastorick said that the prisoners were not allowed video visits due to their custody level. 

He pointed out that Kermit Parker, the prisoner still on hunger strike, had made 54 calls since January, all of them to his wife. But Marsha Parker said that a sizable portion of those calls — which would amount to around eight per month. were cut off by security after just one or two minutes. She also said that given the conditions of their confinement, the lack of phone calls was a relatively minor issue.

According to the prisoners, cell temperatures frequently reach over 100 degrees in their cells, but prison officials go out of their way to take the temperature in the hallway in order to obscure that fact. 

Pastorick denied the allegations that the temperature ever gets over 100 degrees, and said that the prison follows departmental protocols that mandate the prison provides “all of its inmates in the housing and work areas cold water, ice, additional cool showers, and increased ventilation by opening windows and the use of fans.”

The lawsuit against DOC alleges that prisoners also suffer from extreme temperatures in the winter as well — specifically when they are put on suicide watch.

“People are intentionally exposed to extreme cold temperatures to punish them when they are on suicide watch,” the filing reads. “Windows are opened during freezing temperatures while people are housed naked — without shoes — in only paper gowns. Prisoners call it ‘bluesing’ and describe it as torture. Staff intentionally expose severely mentally ill people to freezing temperatures as retaliation for talking loudly. People naked on suicide watch are laughed at for asking for a mattress in the cold. ‘You cold? Are you still cold?’”

Nick 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...