A second trial in a lawsuit over conditions at David Wade Correctional Center, a state prison in north Louisiana, is set to begin next week after a federal judge ruled in November that the use of solitary confinement and lack of mental health care at the facility were unconstitutional and had the “mutually enforcing effect of depriving individuals of basic mental health needs and exposing them to mental torture.”
The “remedy phase” trial, which starts on Tuesday, will determine whether or not conditions have improved at the facility since the March 15, 2020 discovery cutoff date used during the trial, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that prisoners are not continuing to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment. It is scheduled to last several weeks in front of Western District of Louisiana Judge Elizabeth Foote, and will take place via Zoom.
In her ruling last year, Foote found that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to the “severe psychological pain” inflicted on prisoners being held in solitary confinement at the facility. Those prisoners were held in their cells for 23 hours a day and deprived of “meaningful human contact, personal property, and mental stimulation for an indefinite period.” In addition, she found that nearly every aspect of mental health care at the facility was deficient, from screening, to treatment plans, to distribution of psychotropic medication.
The result was that the prison “utilizes extended lockdown as a depository for the mentally ill” while the conditions “only cause those inmates even more pain and suffering, including the worsening of their mental illness,” she wrote.
Lawyers representing the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections have argued in recent pretrial filings that the prison has “made significant achievements” in reducing the use of solitary confinement since the first phase of the trial by reducing the number of restrictive housing beds and creating a new classification of “working segregation” for some prisoners who now have access to group therapy sessions, eat in a cafeteria setting, and have slightly more recreation time.
For people in the most restrictive housing, with no access to group therapy and who are held in their cells for 23 hours a day, the prison says they are able to receive “individual counseling” from mental health staff, and are now allowed four 15-minute phone calls per month. Previously they were only given a single, 10-minute phone call.
The prison says it has also added two additional mental health staff members and increased the number of hours for the single contracted psychiatrist from 18 hours a month to 32 — although all of his visits are now done via telemedicine, rather than in-person. The doctor sees new referrals within seven days, rather than the previous allowable wait time of 14 days. The prison has also “completely reworked offender treatment plans, making the plans individualized and improving their quality,” according to lawyers for the DOC.
But attorneys with Disability Rights Louisiana, representing people incarcerated at David Wade, say that the conditions have not substantially improved for their clients. They contend the conditions and treatment provided are still extremely harsh and unconstitutional.
Dr. Craig Haney, who has been retained as an expert witness by the plaintiffs and testified during the first phase of the trial, wrote in a recent report that when he interviewed prisoners over the summer who were held in solitary confinement they “reported that there had been little or no change in their day-to-day living conditions.”
“Further,” he wrote,“they acknowledged high levels of psychological suffering, including many symptoms of psychological stress and trauma and the psychopathological effects of isolation, much as the prisoners did in the interviews I conducted at [David Wade] in 2018 and 2019.”
Another plaintiffs expert, Dr. Kathryn Burns, also found that there continued to be serious deficiencies in provision of mental health care at the prison, including the failures to screen out people with serious mental illness from ending up in solitary confinement in the first place and provide group therapy or counseling.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs also noted that there had been two completed suicides at David Wade since the first phase of the trial. “Based on this information alone, the effectiveness of the suicide prevention program at DWCC is questionable,” they wrote.
According to filings, as of June of last year there were 143 prisoners at David Wade who had been in solitary confinement for more than 30 days, including 37 who had been there for over a year, and 11 who had been there for over two years.
Lawyers with Disability Rights Louisiana have asked that an independent monitor be appointed to oversee implementation of any corrective actions ordered by the court following the trial.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the DOC say that they are no longer in violation of the constitution, and warned against any potential overreach by the court. “While federal courts can certainly enter injunctions to prevent Eighth Amendment violations, they are not to micromanage state prisons,” they wrote.