Camp J, beyond the gates of the sprawling prison farm at Angola, condemns recalcitrant inmates to conditions that have been likened to torture. Credit: User WhisperToMe / Flickr

Deaths at Angola prompted strip searches, but data points away from inmates, visitors as source of contraband

Contraband seizures did not plummet during the pandemic, even during complete halts to visitation, according to Samantha Bosalavage, a legal fellow at The Promise of Justice Initiative.

Abdullah Muhammad entered the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola as a 25-year-old with a freshly issued life sentence.

At intake, before he was issued a prison jumpsuit, guards searched him and told him to disrobe.

“Anytime anyone forces you to take your clothes off, it’s traumatizing,” Muhammad said. He remembers feeling tense that day, as he arrived at the notorious penitentiary, the nation’s largest maximum-security prison.

“You always gonna have that nervous stomach, coming to Angola,” Muhammad said. “You need to figure out quick what to do and what not to do.”

Abdullah Muhammad, 56, an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, was one of multiple inmates strip searched at the maximum-security prison.

Now, after three decades, Muhammad, 56, knows the prison’s rhythms. Most mornings, he wakes early and gets his exercise by walking in the courtyard outside his dorm, Spruce 2. He might end his walk with a few second-line steps around the courtyard, since he grew up in New Orleans. He works two jobs, in the visiting shed and in the prison’s infirmary, where he waxes floors. After work, he’s usually sitting on his bunk, writing in his tidy penmanship. He pens long letters to family and friends, writes fictional stories about travel to private islands once he’s released, and builds legal briefs that he hopes will eventually free him.

Recently, life has been disturbed by a series of random strip searches. On five separate days since January, shakedown squads of “free people” – prison guards –  have conducted wholesale strip-searches as they tossed his dorm and several other dorms within the prison’s East Yard. On one day, he said, they subjected several hundred men to a visual body-cavity search.

“It’s never been like this,” Muhammad said. “Usually, guards watch the cameras, so when they come, they know exactly who they’re coming for.”

The searches were prompted by a few recent drug-related deaths, or so Muhammad has heard. When asked about the searches, Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said that he cannot comment on any departmental security practices.

Yet newly released Department of Corrections data obtained by the Promise of Justice Initiative indicates that inmates and their visitors may not be the primary source of contraband.

Contraband seizures did not plummet during the pandemic, even during complete halts to visitation, according to Samantha Bosalavage, a legal fellow at The Promise of Justice Initiative. “The data we gathered through public records reveals that contraband was continuously brought into Angola between 2019 and 2022, with no slowdown during the full year of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, when visitation was restricted. This data leads to a strong inference that visitors are not the source of contraband.” 

The PJI data matches conventional wisdom among inmates. “They’re not searching in the right places. I believe most of the contraband is coming from the B-Line, the community on the prison grounds where the free people live,” said Michael Zihlavsky, 52, a trained inmate legal counsel who’s part of the prison’s four-member civil-litigation team and is also representing a man who refused to comply with a February search.

As one inmate said, searching prisoners for contraband is like searching schoolkids’ pockets for candy, instead of going directly to the corner store that sells it.

‘The Needs of the Institution’
In 1991, after Muhammad was first arrested for a robbery and homicide in St. James Parish, guards ordered him to undress so that they could check him for contraband and make note of his scars and tattoos. By the time he arrived at Angola in 1992, he was accustomed to that part of correctional life.

During his hearings and trial in St. James, he’d return every night to the St. James jail where he had to disrobe in view of a guard.

That’s standard correctional procedure. Courts have ruled that the threat of smuggled contraband is great enough that prisons and jails can strip-search nearly anyone in their custody, without much reason. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced that concept, with its decision Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, which found that the jail in question “struck a reasonable balance between privacy and the needs of the institution.”

Yet even some justices who agreed with that conclusion in the Florence case questioned whether there should be alternatives or exceptions. “(T)he Court does not hold that it is always reasonable to conduct a full strip search,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in a concurring opinion.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote a dissenting opinion, also questioned effectiveness, by citing a few studies that tracked tens of thousands of strip searches of newly arrested people and found contraband in body cavities in only a handful of people.

It’s unclear how many contraband seizures at Angola were the result of en masse, surprise strip searches versus guards conducting routine pat-downs or conducting smaller, targeted strip searches after observing suspicious inmate activity over security cameras. Yet it could also be argued that, if strip searches ceased, body cavities would become more appealing as hiding places, because inmates would no longer fear being caught.

In this digital age, there also may be other alternatives.

As body scanners have become widely used in airports and other secure locations, some advocates and lawyers have argued that prisons, too, could move from strip searches to less intrusive options that would balance the need for penological security with prisoners’ Fourth Amendment rights to bodily privacy.

For people who are suspected of ingesting or hiding contraband within their bodies, Angola has a “dry cell” where inmates can be placed until they defecate, revealing the contraband.

Prisons could also go back in history, to less high-tech alternatives. In the past, Muhammad recalls that guards conducting broad strip searches of groups, allowed prisoners to remain in their underwear. While the guard watched, each inmate had to run his fingers along the inside of the brief’s elastic band, to show nothing was tucked next to his body.

Routine vs. Non-Routine Searches
After contact with the outside, strip searches are expected. Inmates headed back to their dorms after spending a few hours with loved ones in Angola’s visiting shed queue up in three lines, each with its own privacy screens.

The lines move quickly: three prisoners can be screened individually by three separate guards. Each inmate walks between the partitions, strips down, faces the guard, runs their fingers through their hair, opens their mouth, lifts their privates, then turns away to squat and cough, to ensure that no items forbidden in the prison – drugs, cigarettes, cell phones, weapons or money – are hidden within his body. Searches are most thorough at visitor-heavy times of year, like during the Angola Rodeo.

Random strip searches are less common. Even longtime prisoners interviewed for this piece can count on one hand the number of times they’ve been randomly searched.

“There were shakedowns, pat-downs. But full strip searches were pretty rare. I think I had one random strip search in 27 years,” said Kerry Myers, 66, who edited the award-winning Angolite magazine as he served his time.

Within the past 90 days, guards initiated a half-dozen random searches, on January 12, February 2, 15 and 16 and on March 17. On some days, the teams searched 200 to 300 people. On one day, they searched closer to 1,000 people.

“It sounds like they were trying to make people uncomfortable, to send them a message. They’re trying to make people wary of transporting drugs,” said Myers, whose sentence, a wrongful conviction, was commuted by Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2016.

Muhammad and other inmates say that they are alarmed both by the frequency of the searches and by the non private way in which they were conducted.

During the dorm-wide searches, prisoners were told to face the front, unlock their locker boxes and sit on their bunks. Guards rooted quickly through locker boxes, tossing possessions and papers everywhere.

Then came the body searches. In Spruce 2, the guards ordered Muhammad and others in the back row of bunks to proceed to the front of the room and undress, squat and cough. “Everyone in the dormitory is looking at you while you get naked, raise your testicles, squat and cough,” he said.

The lack of privacy appears to violate Department of Corrections policy to conduct strip searches “in a private place out of the view of others.” In the presence of other inmates, the policy reads, DOC employees may ask offenders “to remove their clothing down to their underwear.”  

The most intense and widespread search was on February 2, when everyone in Spruce 2 and several other dorms were ordered into bathrooms to disrobe. They were then told to cough in a squatting position – and to use their hands to spread their own butt cheeks, putting their anal area on display to all guards and other inmates in the room – roughly 30 people each time, Muhammad estimates.

That level of nudity puts the procedure on another level, known as a “visual body cavity search.” Department of Corrections policy puts a stricter limit on such searches, which require prior written approval of the warden and “a showing of reasonable suspicion” – with specific and articulable facts – that the targeted person should be searched.

Reasonable suspicion is the same standard that police must meet before they can stop and frisk anyone, notes Loyola University Law School professor Andrea Armstrong. “It’s supposed to be individualized,” she said. “It’s not enough for a person to be walking in a bad neighborhood or – in a prison – for you to be living in dorms where they suspect drug activity. There must be individualized facts, from which we could infer criminal activity.”

According to Muhammad’s observations and conversations with others, the February 2 shakedown crew visited and conducted visual body-cavity searches of nearly the entire East yard, including Spruce 1, Spruce 2, Spruce 3, Spruce 4; Cypress 1, 2, 3, and 4, and two of the Magnolia dorms, usually referred to as Mag. With 86 men per dorm, that’s roughly 860 people searched, in one day, with their most private parts exposed to a group of gathered inmates and guards.

From Spruce 2, seven were written up for contraband and sent temporarily to a solitary-confinement area known as “the dungeon.” The contraband included some phones, chewing tobacco that was dried, ready to be smoked; and a few electronic tablets altered in a forbidden way, that allows connection to the Internet.

Drugs In Prison – “They know it’s a problem.”
Drugs within prisons are a known hazard across the nation and at Angola. Between 2015 and 2019, there were 28 deaths officially tied to drugs, which made up roughly 4% of the 786 deaths of Louisiana people incarcerated in a prison or jail, in an analysis by the Incarceration Transparency Project at Loyola University Law School students.

In recent years, there’s been an uptick in deaths coded as drug-related deaths at Department of Corrections facilities, said Loyola law professor Andrea Armstrong, who directs the Incarceration Transparency Project. According to data from state Prison Inmate Death Reports, there were zero drug-related deaths in DOC-run facilities between 2015 and 2017. Then in 2018, there was one. Then four per year, in 2019 and 2020. 

Then in 2021, the latest year that the project has analyzed, there were 13. “A pretty significant jump,” Armstrong said. Drug deaths among DOC prisoners serving sentences within parish jails also increased markedly, she said. 

Overall, in-custody deaths have risen among state inmates, she said. “We’re also seeing increases in violent deaths and in suicides.” Depending on the drug, inmates could be feeling numbed or delirious, in a way that an increase in inmates using drugs might precipitate an increase in violence and suicides as well, she said.

From a scan through the project’s death data, Angola seems well-represented, from Davis Kristein, 47, a resident of the prison’s Hickory 1 dorm, who died on February 6th that year of “multiple drug toxicity,” to Corinthian Milton, 46, a resident of Camp D’s Raven 1 dorm, who died on October 29, 2021 of a methamphetamine overdose.

The Angola main prison includes a rehabilitation dorm called New Men, in what used to be the Walnut 3 dorm, which currently houses roughly 20 patients and 40 sponsors, prisoners who became clean and helping others get clean.

“They know it’s a problem,” said Myers, the former Angolite editor. “They have created drug dorms and provided counselors. They’re worried about the stuff that people are OD-ing on. It’s heroin, PCP, and mojo – synthetic marijuana.”

Louisiana Department of Corrections data obtained by the Promise of Justice Initiative show that the number of contraband seizures at Angola has remained fairly consistent at Angola, despite the pandemic, when the state halted visiting for much of 2020 and 2021, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Rikers Island in New York saw similar trends during COVID-19 visitor bans, according to The City, a news organization there, which obtained internal jail data showing that corrections officials made 2,600 drug seizures between April 2020 and May 2021, twice the number of seizures during the same period of 2018 and 2019.

Angola, like other DOC facilities, barred visitors for most of 2020. Yet PJI staff analyzing the data noted that contraband barely dipped during that time. 

In 2020, when prisoners were only allowed contact visits for the first few months, for a total of 19 percent of the year. In 2021, visitors were allowed for just over half of the year.

As shown in the accompanying graphics, the number of offenders busted for illicit substances at Angola was 357 in 2019, 282 in 2020, 340 in 2021 and 277 in 2022. 

Contraband totals were also consistent: with 2,192 seizures in 2019; 2,144 in 2020; 1,942 in 2021 and 1,695 in 2022.

Employees at Angola walk through body scanners as they enter the prison to work. But the data shows that there are gaps. Even without a single visitor, contraband was consistent. So, someone with regular access to the prison – either contractors or staff – must be carrying in cell phones and drugs.

That raises questions about the series of strip searches conducted within the past 90 days. “It’s critical to protect the safety and well-being of everyone incarcerated at Angola by staunching the flow of illicit substances into the facility,” Bosalavage said. “But traumatizing individuals and violating their rights through mass strip-searches will not achieve that goal. Instead, we need to cut off the flow of contraband at its source. And, according to the data, that source is not family or visitors.”

“No dignity. Like we nobody.”

For Muhammad, the rash of searches has left a mark, partly because he believes that his documents may be the key to his freedom. “It took days to put my papers back in order. Like putting a puzzle back together,” he said. “So when the shakedown crew showed up again, my mind started racing. I have precious documents that I have organized. I have my mother’s funeral program. And they throw everyone’s papers all over, they bunch it all up. If someone left a cup of coffee nearby, that might be spilled on your papers too.”

In his foot-locker, along with his court paperwork, he keeps a copy of some prison policies, including Department Regulation No. OP-A-8, which governs “searches of offenders.” The regulation specifies that “strip searches shall be conducted in a respectful and dignified manner.” 

To him, the shakedown on February 2 not only defied those regulations, it also felt dehumanizing in a new way.

“It was what we’ve read about or seen on TV. Like we were on a slave lot, where people could tell a man to open his mouth, take off his clothes and examine his body. No dignity. Like we nobody,” he said.

At least two men were punished for not complying with that day’s search, including Trevon Wiley, a widely known boxer on the Angola team who lives in Cypress 1. Wiley reportedly squatted and coughed three or four times but was maced when he refused the order to spread his cheeks.

“They used 96 grams of mace on him,” said inmate counsel Michael Zihlavsky, a prisoner trained in legal matters who represented Wiley at his hearing. 

On February 13, Zihlavsky filed a grievance, an Administrative Remedy Procedure, on Wiley’s behalf, asking to preserve guard body-camera footage from February 2, when, Wiley alleges, a captain sprayed the Mace in his face and eyes “without any penological purpose, in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against Use of Excessive Force.”

In the grievance’s “Relief Requested” section, Wiley first asks not to be retaliated against for filing a grievance. He should also be awarded a $4,000 fine, he wrote, paid from the captain’s pocket – “not taxpayer money.”

In Wiley’s defense, Zihlavsky notes that the search was not merited, because of lack of reasonable suspicion specific to Wiley. Plus, the search was not private. “The policy requires that one person does the search while another watches. But in this case, 15 people lined up shoulder to shoulder,” Zihlavksy said on a recent phone call.

There’s no way that DOC policy was followed on that day, Muhammad said. “Do you have a confidential informant who told you that almost 1,000 people have drugs in their butts? How could 1,000 be under reasonable suspicion?”`