David Wade Correctional Center (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Kermit Parker, a prisoner at David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, Louisiana, remains on a hunger strike that began two weeks ago in protest of being held in disciplinary segregation for nearly two years, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections confirmed on Friday morning. 

Parker and several other prisoners have alleged that while they were told they were being transferred to David Wade from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel to serve 90-day disciplinary sentences, they have been there far longer, in some cases for months. While there, the prisoners said, they have been kept in their sweltering cells — which at times reach over one hundred degrees — for over 23 hours a day, been stripped of their belongings, and have been verbally and physically abused. They are requesting that they be transferred back to Elayn Hunt. 

The DOC has said that the prisoners are not being moved back to Elayn Hunt because routine transfers have been suspended due to COVID. However, transfers are still being “approved on a case by case basis,” according to Pastorick. 

The DOC has previously admitted that they sometimes keep prisoners in punitive restrictive housing past the amount of time dictated by their own disciplinary policy if they don’t have enough space for them in other housing units. 

Originally, 15 inmates announced they were participating in the strike. All but Parker have since gone back to taking their meals, according to the DOC. Parker is now being held on suicide watch, Pastorick said in an email on Thursday. 

“When an inmate decides to forego meals that is considered intentional self harming and they may be placed on a suicide watch,” he said. 

There are two types of suicide watch at David Wade — standard and extreme.   

According to a January report submitted by a mental health expert, Dr. Kathryn A. Burns, as part of a civil rights lawsuit against the prison, on standard suicide watch a “prisoner’s property and clothing are removed, and he is moved to an empty cell inside the segregation unit that contains a closed-circuit camera that permits security staff outside the housing unit to view the inmate on a monitor.”

 On extreme suicide watch, “the prisoner is held under the same conditions as above but, he is also placed in steel restraints, including handcuffs, and a ‘black box’ (a sort of black square shaped handcuff cover that further restricts arm movement) although he could also be put into a restraint chair, immobilizing him completely.”

It was not clear on Friday which type of suicide watch Parker was on. Both were criticized in Burns’ report for being primarily punitive and unconcerned with the well-being of prisoners. 

“Neither of these types of watches has any positive impact on mental health or depression,” Burns wrote. “The conditions on either type of watch are punitive and designed in such a way as to discourage others from reporting suicidal thoughts. In fact, the nearly exact same conditions (single cell, no clothing, paper gown, no property, no recreation, no mattress or bedding) are used by custody staff when prisoners are placed in ‘strip cell status’ as punishment for certain types of behavior or spoken language.”

In spite of that characterization, a recent court filing from the Department of Corrections claimed that Burns “had few criticisms of DWCC’s use of suicide watch,” and that  her “only criticism of extreme suicide watch was the use of steel restraints.”

Marsha Parker, Kermit Parker’s wife, said on Friday that while she has not been able to contact her husband since the strike began, she had heard from family members of other prisoners at the facility that her letters to him were being withheld and used as incentive to end his hunger strike.

“‘You come off hunger strike, you can have it,’” she said. “And then they will put it in the envelope and lock it up. They dangle it like, you know, like a rabbit in front of a carrot. Or they say, ‘Do you want to call your wife?’ Of course, he says yes. And then they say, ‘Come off the hunger strike.’”

In a phone call on Friday, Pastorick denied that was happening. 

“Our people are not going to withhold mail from somebody to try and get them off of a suicide watch or get them off of a hunger strike,” Pastorick said. “That’s ludicrous. That’s just not going to happen. We don’t do that.”

The 14 other prisoners who initially announced they would go on hunger strike are being held in “transitional segregation” at David Wade, according to Pastorick. Transitional segregation is defined in the DOC policy manual as a “maximum custody temporary holding area, preferably a cell, until bed space is available for placement or awaiting a transfer to another institution.”

Pastorick has said that some prisoners were given the option of being moved to less restrictive housing, but refused. Marsha Parker said it was her husband’s understanding that if he agreed to be moved, he would forfeit his right to be transferred back to Hunt. Pastorick, however, said that being moved “would not affect their eligibility to be transferred.”

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...