Hundreds of Louisiana Inmates Held in Isolation, Called 'Torture,' for More Than a Year, Reform Group Says

By Matt Sledge, The New Orleans Advocate

Hundreds of Louisiana prisoners report they were held in isolation for more than a year and many believe their mental health deteriorated as a result, according to a survey that prison-reform advocates released on Tuesday.

Louisiana State Penitentiary                    ADVOCATE FILE PHOTO BY Mark Saltz

Louisiana State Penitentiary ADVOCATE FILE PHOTO BY Mark Saltz

The report from advocacy groups that include the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana piggybacks off earlier findings that Louisiana has the highest percentage of prisoners in solitary confinement in the United States.

The report is based on surveys of 700 state prisoners who are being held with special restrictions on their movements and communication.

More than 77 percent of the survey respondents said that they had been held in solitary for more than a year, and 30 percent said they had spent more than five years there.

More than 43 percent claimed they never left their cells, which averaged 6 feet by 9 feet in size, during their time in isolation, according to the survey.

A spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections disputed the allegations made in the report, saying in a prepared statement that many of the assertions were "vague and blatant lies."

The statement also pointed to the state's effort in recent years to lower its prison population as well as reduce the use of what the department calls "restrictive housing."

The report was produced by Solitary Watch, the ACLU of Louisiana and the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University.

Solitary Watch, a national nonprofit, describes itself as a watchdog group that seeks to “catalyze discussion, debate and change.”

In August 2017, the groups mailed surveys to 2,902 Louisiana prisoners in “isolation units” who had been identified via a public records request to the state. Fewer than a quarter of those prisoners responded, and the groups acknowledged that their survey was hardly scientific. But they described it as the most comprehensive such poll ever conducted behind prison walls.

While many people may picture solitary confinement as a single prisoner kept in a small, dark room for days or weeks on end, the United Nations has defined it more broadly to include any prisoners held in isolation for more than 22 hours a day. The groups issuing the report Tuesday said they also included inmates who have a cellmate but are denied other meaningful social interaction.

In addition to the long periods that many prisoners said they spent isolated, more than half of the prisoners who responded said their mental health had worsened, while a quarter said they had engaged in “self-harm” by doing things like cutting themselves or banging their heads against cell walls.

Seventy-nine percent of respondents described their medical care during that time as poor.

The groups hope their survey results will give added urgency to an ongoing effort to reduce the number of people held in severely restrictive prison conditions in Louisiana.

In May, the Vera Institute of Justice issued a report which found that as of three years ago, 17 percent of Louisiana prison inmates were held in solitary confinement, about four times the national average.

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Olivia McDowellComment