On February 13, men being held in one of the solitary confinement wards at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola were discussing how to get out from under their miserably austere physical conditions. These included broken lights in their cells, no underwear, a single blanket and inadequate heating in record cold temperatures for northern Louisiana. The men also experienced brutal psychological conditions, including no time outside in the yard at all and only limited time out in the hall where they may or may not be lucky enough to make it into the shower in the 15 minutes allotted to them.
They’d been isolated, under-stimulated, living in semi-darkness. They were at the end of their emotional tether. They rejected the only available official route for individuals to resolve grievances within the Louisiana Department of Corrections (LADOC), the Administrative Remedy Procedure, because while officially it can take up to 90 days for a determination, practically it often takes much longer.
Some of the men had some success in the past in getting the prison administration’s attention by refusing meals and gesturing toward a hunger strike, getting positive results, often on the same day. Officially, a strike is acknowledged as such when nine consecutive meals are refused. By law, after the ninth refused meal, LADOC is compelled to notify the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and must minister to the men with medical care and hear their grievances and demands.
The men were aware that LADOC solitary practices had been the subject of two major critical reports by the VERA Institute for Justice and the ACLU, both member organizations of the Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition, and expected that their cries would not be ignored. Reaching consensus, they picked Wednesday, February 17, one day after Mardi Gras, as their start date for a hunger strike, when prison officials would likely be back on the job after the holiday break.
The strike was announced by the @angola_watchdog Twitter account, created by independent activist Michaela (Caeli) Higgins, a former public relations professional and New Orleans native now living in the San Francisco Bay area. Since COVID began, she’s been engaged in a regular correspondence with 15 different men incarcerated in Angola. When the strike was called, they reached out. Her friend, journalist John McDevitt, broke the story on Liberation, including her request for the public to contact the prison — a move that was echoed by the Stop Solitary Coalition in its press release.
“I really love and appreciate the call-in campaign, because it’s let Angola know we’re not standing alone,” said striker Frederick Ross in a message shared with Truthout. “All [prison officials] really respect is outside support and pressure.”
Ross has been locked in solitary confinement since last April and he expected to be transferred to a working cell block by November, which is the next step down on the way back to the general prison population. But he hasn’t had his disciplinary hearing yet, which means that all these months of waiting in segregation will not be credited to his disciplinary sentence when it’s handed down. It’s what’s referred to as “dead time” — another misery in his 50-year prison sentence.
The hunger strike started on February 17 with 15 participants; 12 days later, there were four remaining strikers — Ross, Percy Hawthorne, Donald Hensley and Theoshamond Norman. They’ve held out against various offers from a colonel (a rank that is second-in-command under the warden) because they suspected he was not representing the administration and that his offers were a trick. The offers included promises of immediate transfer out of segregation as well as punishments, including threats of being maced in their cells. Witnesses report that at the beginning of the action, guards were playing cat and mouse with food trays, putting them on the floor in front of the cell, waiting two minutes, and whisking them away, but without documenting the strikers’ refusal, as required by LADOC policy.
Twelve days in, people close to the strikers reported that no “unusual occurrence reports” had been completed. Basic Jail Guidelines III-007 requires “written procedures for significant unusual occurrences or institutional emergencies including but not limited to major disturbances such as riots, hostage situations, escapes, fires, deaths, serious illness or injury and assaults or other acts of violence.” Nor have the strikers been examined medically, which would follow as a consequence of filing the reports. In the physiology of hunger, at around the two-week mark, the human body goes through some rapid changes that can make standing difficult. Strikers can also suffer from severe dizziness, sluggishness, weakness, loss of coordination, low heart rate and chills. On the fifth day, strikers say they requested medical assessment, offering to pay for it themselves. It has not been forthcoming.
The hunger strikers are also facing reprisals.
Ross was moved to another section of the prison called Camp C on February 23. His loved ones told Truthout that the cell he is now in has a leaking toilet and a constantly wet floor. He spends all day and night on the upper bunk, descending only when let out to shower. Though he’s past the point of having bowel movements, if he has to urinate, he perches on the bottom bunk, turns sideways and aims at the toilet.
After being moved, he was not allowed to use the wall phone to make collect calls. When his loved ones called the prison on February 28 to inquire why they hadn’t been hearing from him, they were told that he’d been written up for a violation and his phone privileges were suspended. When asked what violation, they were told it was participating in the hunger strike; after complaints by family members and supporters, his phone access was restored.
On February 27, a report from a man who had come off the strike reached Truthout. He said that security approached strikers’ cells at 11:30 the previous night when they were sleeping, and repeated an ominous request: “Come to the bars, come to the bars, come to the bars.” Those who didn’t act fast enough were “sprayed down” with mace, a form of collective punishment in an enclosed cell block.
The strikers contend that LADOC is violating its own policies. In current practice, when people are removed from the general population for infractions, they’re placed first in administrative segregation, and after the disciplinary hearing, in disciplinary segregation, which is exactly the same thing in terms of conditions and punishments. The length of their punishment is dictated by the agency’s internal “disciplinary sanctions matrix,” a document shrouded in secrecy and unavailable to the public, including journalists and prisoner advocates.
In his piece in The Lens, journalist Nicholas Chrastil reported that while the number of strikers was under dispute by LADOC, the agency did not deny the validity of the strikers’ fundamental grievance. But also, Chrastil noted, “The Department of Corrections declined to provide a copy of its disciplinary policy to The Lens.”
Kiana Calloway is an organizer with Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a grassroots organization in New Orleans founded by formerly incarcerated people working against the prison-industrial complex and toward a “future of mass liberation for all.” Calloway says that even the advocates who were asked by LADOC for input in rewriting the disciplinary policy have been working with limited information.
“We had a meeting with LADOC right before COVID,” Calloway told Truthout. “We were in the process of actually helping them rewrite that matrix, but we never got to see the matrix they had already in position.”
After learning of the hunger strike, Krystal Imbraguglio wrote to the Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition asking for help in publicizing her husband’s plight in Angola, despite the possibility of retaliation. Imbraguglio’s husband has been confined in solitary for more than seven years, and with additional punishments being heaped on him, it’s more than they can bear. As Imbraguglio wrote in an email sent to the coalition on February 25:
He recently incurred a contraband charge.… Not only did they take away all privileges, but after the hearing they revoked his visitation and sent out a memo stating he is to be strip searched and cell searched every 12 hours.… On the way to and from the shower he is fully restrained and shackled. They are going out of their way to torture him.… They withhold my letters and tell him I am divorcing him. He has been dealing with this since January 29th.
I don’t know what else to do.
Similarly, Kimberly Carter told Truthout that she almost fears for her brother’s life (name withheld) in Angola, and not just from COVID. She says he’s been there for over a year and in solitary for over 120 days. In that time, he’s been maced by a guard and thrown into a cell with a cellmate known to be violent, who had in fact murdered another incarcerated person and is not supposed to be housed with other prisoners.
“He’s 6’5” and 250 pounds and my brother is younger and very thin,” Carter said. “He attacked my brother, who was really injured. It was an injustice and he started a case against the prison.”
Since then, it’s been one thing after another.
“A few weeks ago, he was handcuffed by a guard, left alone in an open space, and another inmate attacked him with an object. When he was attacked, the prison never contacted us; another inmate called my mother, who called me crying,” says Carter. “It’s a lot.”
In the 2020 Stowe book prize winner, Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope, author Albert Woodfox recounted his harrowing 45-day hunger strike in Angola in the late 1970s. The strikers were demanding that slots be cut into the bars so the men’s food trays could be passed through and not slid underneath on the prison floor.
“Forty-five days just to force them not to feed us like animals,” Woodfox told Truthout. “But even when they agreed, it took 18 months to cut the slots.”
Woodfox, who survived solitary confinement for 44 years by refusing to accept his own dehumanization, fully supports the men currently refusing food in Angola. They’re caged in bleak 6-by-9-foot cells for more than 23 hours a day with no TV, radio, no time outside in the yard. It’s supposed to be a disciplinary measure for a prescribed time — days, weeks or sometimes months — but they’re languishing there, seemingly forgotten.
Woodfox says that solitary’s sole purpose is to break human beings.
“To break their spirit, destroy their sense of self-worth. But they’re human beings, birthed of mothers,” Woodfox said. “They didn’t come from another planet. We owe them that — their humanity.”