David Wade Correctional Center (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

A class-action lawsuit filed nearly four years ago by people in custody at David Wade Correctional Center — a state prison in Claiborne Parish — over allegedly inadequate mental health care and improper use of solitary confinement is finally set to go to trial next week. 

The 2018 suit, originally filed by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and Disability Rights Louisiana (formerly known as The Advocacy Center), claimed that prison officials do not properly screen, diagnose or treat mental illness for prisoners held in solitary confinement — also referred to as “extended lockdown” or “restrictive housing” —  where they are held in their cell for 23 hours a day and rarely allowed social interaction.   

“These extreme conditions create mental illness, and exacerbate pre-existing mental illness, causing psychotic decompensation and propensity for acts of self- harm,” the complaint alleged. “Some people hear voices, or talk and scream to themselves. Some engage in cutting themselves and attempting suicide to escape the extreme conditions. Two men have sliced open their testicles and one attempted to cut off his ear. Another man climbed a barbed-wire fence and attempted suicide by diving off headfirst. Others bang their heads against the walls.”

The conditions and lack of treatment for prisoners with mental illness at the facility violates their constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, along with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, the suit argues. The case was granted class-action status in September of last year.

The trial — in front of U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote, an appointee of former President Barack Obama — is scheduled to begin Monday. It is set to last four weeks. 

The claims made in the lawsuit illustrate a pattern in which prisoners with mental illness are not properly diagnosed or treated, placed in solitary confinement where their conditions get worse, and then are punished through undue uses of force, more disciplinary write ups, and placed on suicide watch, causing further deterioration.

But lawyers with Attorney General Jeff Landry’s Office, representing the Louisiana Department of Corrections, say that those claims are significantly overstated. They argue that all prisoners being held in solitary confinement at David Wade “either have no serious mental illness or are in remission or are stable,” and that the treatment provided to them is constitutionally sufficient.

Conditions of solitary confinement at the facility gained the attention of criminal justice reform advocates and the media last summer, when a group of prisoners housed in restrictive housing at David Wade went on hunger strike in response to the conditions of their confinement. The prisoners had been transferred to David Wade — which the state uses as a kind of disciplinary camp — from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and were kept there for months beyond their disciplinary sentences. While there, they were being held in solitary beyond the amount of time dictated by the department’s recently adopted disciplinary sanctions matrix

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to a request for comment about the upcoming trial by Thursday afternoon. 

Prisoners not offered full treatment, are deprived of meds, lawyers say

According to the civil rights attorneys representing the prisoners, everyone transferred to David Wade from other Louisiana prisons is initially placed in solitary confinement for a period of time before being transferred to the general population. But they allege that those prisoners are not adequately screened for mental illness, and that their prior records are not sufficiently reviewed by prison staff “to identify whether the person has a mental health diagnosis that would require treatment or care inconsistent with the extreme isolation of solitary confinement or extended lockdown.” 

Once in solitary, the lawsuit charges that prisoners “receive virtually no treatment for mental illness,” and that due to lack of monitoring by prison staff “psychiatric decompensation goes unnoticed, as does the onset of new symptoms.” 

A psychiatrist is contracted by David Wade to meet with prisoners with mental illness at least once every three months, but the lawsuit alleges that those relatively infrequent sessions are ineffective due to the fact that they generally last only three to five minutes, are not confidential, and that no treatment, other than medication, is ever prescribed. 

“There is no individual counseling, group therapy, or support group available for people on extended lockdown, regardless of an individual’s diagnosis or response to medication,” the attorneys allege. 

They also contend that prisoners are frequently deprived of their medication because staff at David Wade fail to administer it properly, and that prison medical administrative records “show gaping holes in the distribution of medication.” 

“The failure to provide even the bare minimum of mental health treatment in the form of medication leaves class members unnecessarily cycling on and off psychotropic medications, and doing so without any safety net of other care or counseling,” they wrote. 

A lack of adequate treatment can lead prisoners in solitary confinement to deteriorate, causing them to act out or attempt to harm themselves due to their mental illness. In response to these mental health crises, the attorneys say, David Wade prisoners are frequently placed on suicide watch — even when there is no indication of suicidal ideation or threat of self-harm.   While on suicide watch they are stripped of all their clothing and belongings aside from a paper gown, and confined to a concrete cell — sometimes without even a mattress. On extreme suicide watch, they are placed in restraints while in their cell.

In addition to being inhumane and causing further mental health deteriortion, the lawsuit alleges that the harsh conditions of suicide watch also deter prisoners from reporting when they are experiencing mental health emergencies.

On top of this, the lawsuit alleges that prisoners are frequently subject to both physical and verbal abuse from staff.

Lawyers for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections deny many of the allegations in the suit, and claim that none of the deficiencies in mental health treatment at the jail rise to the level of being unconstitutional. In a June filing, they argued that David Wade “has a robust system that (i) identifies and diagnoses mental illness; (ii) treats mental illness with a psychiatrist and mental health staff; and (iii) appropriately uses restrictive housing to deliver safety to the public, DWCC staff, and the other offenders.”

At trial, attorneys for the prison plan to call into question the reliability of prisoners’ testimony regarding their treatment in solitary confinement, who they characterize as “dangerous and violent men,” some of whom are transferred to David Wade because they cannot be housed in other prisons.  

“The records in this case are replete with specific examples of offenders engaging in manipulative behavior,” they wrote in a pretrial filing, arguing that prisoners will claim to be suicidal for various reasons, such as wanting to secure a new cell assignment, get transferred to a different institution, or to “get back” at security staff. 

“In many respects, the Court will have to make a credibility determination as to whom to believe,” the attorneys wrote. 

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...