David Wade Correctional Center (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

In the first day of trial in a federal class-action lawsuit over mental health treatment and conditions at David Wade Correctional Center — a state prison in Claiborne Parish — on Monday, several people who were formerly held in solitary confinement at the facility testified that they faced unnecessarily harsh conditions, experienced and witnessed abuse from prison staff, and were not offered sufficient mental health treatment during their imprisonment. 

Melanie Bray, an attorney with Disability Rights Louisiana, an organization representing the plaintiffs’ class of current or former David Wade prisoners in the lawsuit, called conditions at David Wade “not simply punitive” but “intentionally and unnecessarily cruel.” 

The men said that they were held in extended lockdown, a form of solitary confinement, in a concrete cell for over 23 hours a day, where they were given one 10-minute phone call a month. The cells were filthy, they said, and often smelled of feces and urine. In the summer it would get “excruciatingly hot,” and in the winter, freezing cold. They also said guards would regularly spray individual prisoners in their cells with chemicals that would emanate throughout the rest of the cells, affecting the entire tier. 

“It’s like your body is on fire. It’s like a heat you can’t get rid of. It’s excruciating pain. It takes your breath away,” said Carlton Turner, one of the former David Wade prisoners who offered videoconference testimony before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisian on Monday. 

Lawyers for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, however, argued that the state has wide latitude about the conditions in which they can hold prisoners, and that the prison system in Louisiana uses solitary confinement at similar rates as other states around the country. 

“There is no problem in Louisiana where we are throwing people in restrictive housing and it’s too many or for too long,” said Connell L. Archey, an attorney representing the DOC.  “Don’t let these offenders manipulate the court.”

(The DOC has pointed to a 2020 study that shows the state has significantly reduced the degree to which it relies on restrictive housing in the last several years — but prisoners and advocates say it continues to be used too frequently and without sufficient justification.)

The suit alleges that conditions in the prison, including its use of highly restrictive housing, create or severely exacerbate mental health problems. What’s more, they say, the prison provides inadequate mental health services for those problems.

The witnesses on Monday testified that they were unable to receive any group therapy or individual counseling for their mental health needs while on extended lockdown at David Wade, and they were never given the opportunity to speak to mental health staff in a confidential setting. Rather, the interactions occurred in front of their cells, with other guards and prisoners within earshot. 

“You don’t want to talk about anything too private because these guys will use that against you,” Turner said. “You don’t want to make the situation worse.”

Turner, who was convicted of first-degree murder and who is currently incarcerated at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, testified that he was held in extended lockdown at David Wade continuously between 2016 and 2019. He said that he had been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. During his time in extended lockdown at David Wade he said he attempted suicide multiple times. 

In response to the first attempt, he said that David Wade officials denied him a confidential meeting with any mental health staff, and placed him on extreme suicide watch — where he was held in a restraint chair for 12 hours at a time while locked in a cell. Turner called the experience “agonizing,” and said it exacerbated his mental health condition. 

“It only increased the depression that I felt, the feeling of hopelessness,” he said. 

Dameion Brumfield, who said he was at David Wade between 2014 and 2020 for an attempted robbery conviction, but is now out of prison,  said that he hadn’t been diagnosed with any mental illness. But he witnessed the lack of treatment, and abuse of prisoners who were “considered mental health offenders,” while on extended lockdown at the facility. One prisoner in particular Brumfield testified about, who he said clearly suffered from mental illness, was frequently the target of cruel treatment from prison guards. He described a form of punishment administered by prison guards against him, which several prisoners referred to as “bluesing.”

“They’ll take him to the shower,” Brumfield said.”When he gets out of the shower, he’s soaking wet. … It’s in winter. 30 degrees. It’s freezing cold. There’s ice on our windows. They’ll bust open all the windows and turn on all the fans and point them in [his] cell while he’s soaking wet with a paper gown on. A mental health offender! And freeze him until they feel like he had enough.”

Attorneys representing the prison on Monday called the practice of “bluesing” a myth. 

Brumfield said that the treatment of prisoners at David Wade was not only cruel but unproductive in terms of rehabilitation. 

“Even if those offenders committed the crime… there’s no way in the world society would accept the treatment that they get behind those walls,” Brumfield said. “Society don’t know what goes on behind those walls…. That place is not fit. It only harms people — it creates monsters.”  

Willie Dillon said that he was suffering from depression and was unable to sleep while he was in extended lockdown at David Wade. When he was eventually able to see a psychiatrist, he said he was immediately offered medication rather than any form of counseling.  

“He said, ‘What’s going on? You want some pills?’ I said ‘Pills?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you want some pills?”

Dillon told a member of the mental health staff that he didn’t want pills.  “‘I told you I was having problems sleeping and I was dealing with something personal that I was trying to figure out what was going on with me,” Dillons said he told the staff member. “I need to talk, first of all, and see what’s going on. I need to talk.’”

But Dillon said he was never offered individual or group therapy while at David Wade. 

In the lawsuit, attorneys are also alleging that prison officials frequently opened the privileged legal mail of their clients in violation of their First Amendment Rights. During the hearing on Monday, they presented several pieces of mail that had been sent by the men who testified that appeared to have been opened up and then taped shut, despite the fact that the envelopes were labeled legal mail.

Each of the men claimed that they had sealed the envelopes before giving them to prison guards to send off, and that no one on extended lockdown had any access to tape.  

In filings, lawyers for the prison have argued that ​​”any complaints about the condition of mail” were not the fault of the prison, which “maintains sound policies on the handling of mail, and they comply with those policies.”

Lawyers for the prisoners are asking the judge to force the prison to implement changes that will bring the conditions and mental health care at the facility up to what they consider to be constitutional levels. The trial is scheduled to last four weeks. 

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...