Legal fight over North Louisiana prison conditions costs taxpayers millions
Trial started this month over solitary confinement at David Wade Correctional Center
(Stock photo by Shutterstock)
A legal battle over one North Louisiana prison’s mental health services and its lockdown of people with disabilities has already cost the state millions of dollars – and its price will go up significantly now that a trial is underway.
Louisiana agreed to pay $2.9 million in legal fees for private attorneys to defend a lawsuit against state prison officials and David Wade Correctional Center in Claiborne Parish, according to information provided by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
That price tag doesn’t cover any of the legal work this year, including the cost of the trial that started last week in the U.S. Western District Court of Louisiana and another trial that could take place in the summer. It also doesn’t account for plaintiffs’ legal fees, which a judge may order the state to pay if Louisiana loses the case.
The cost of the legal fight came as a surprise to those on both sides of the lawsuit. In an interview, Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, a defendant in the case, said he wasn’t aware that the litigation had grown that expensive. He also expressed concern that the money would be coming out of the prison system’s budget.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs expressed shock that the legal fees had run so high before the trial even started. They said the $2.9 million could have gone a long way toward fixing the conditions at David Wade that the lawsuit is meant to address.
“These are taxpayer dollars that should be spent on state programs, rather than on lawyers,” Katie Schwartzmann, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, wrote in an email in November. “This is part of an increasing trend of the (Department of Corrections) focusing more on scorched-earth litigation over common-sense improvements.”
The prison system said the litigation has been costly because the work is specialized. The department’s in-house attorneys don’t have the skill set or time to handle a case of this magnitude.
“Few attorneys have the requisite expertise required to defend these types of cases – especially large-scale class action proceedings such as this matter which involve multiple expert witnesses and millions of pages of documents,” wrote Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the corrections department.
“These are taxpayer dollars that should be spent on state programs, rather than on lawyers.”
– - Katie Schwartzmann, plaintiffs' attorney
People formerly incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center allege officials there have violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people living with mental illness. They also allege the prison violated the First Amendment when it interfered with communication between incarcerated people and their attorneys.
In legal documents, plaintiffs said Wade officials ignored mental illness diagnoses and put incarcerated people with severe mental illness in lockdown, exacerbating their diseases.
The plaintiffs said incarcerated people lost access to medication they were taking for mental illness when they were transferred to Wade from other state prisons. At the time the lawsuit was filed, a psychiatrist was working at the prison only two days per month and spent just three to five minutes every 90 days with each incarcerated person he treated.
Another staff person treating people at the prison has a degree in industrial psychology but represents himself as a therapist, despite not having a therapy license in Louisiana, according to plaintiffs.
Incarcerated people on extended lockdown do not have access to group therapy. People who ask for help or exhibit signs of their mental illness, such as shouting in their cell, are sometimes sprayed with chemicals as punishment or placed on suicide watch, according to the plaintiffs.
On standard suicide watch, incarcerated people are clothed in paper gowns and have their mattress taken away from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. On extreme suicide watch, individuals are restrained in a chair, according to legal documents from the prison system and plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs said people are given no additional mental health counseling for days while on suicide watch and not allowed to have phone calls or visitors.
“Due to lack of human contact and uncontrolled mental illness, many will laugh, scream and talk to themselves,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in the initial lawsuit filed in 2018. “Others rock in place or deteriorate to more severe manifestations of their conditions, such as smearing blood or feces.”
“Due to lack of human contact and uncontrolled mental illness, many will laugh, scream and talk to themselves.”
– excerpt from plaintiffs' claims in lawsuit
The state’s response
Attorneys for the state prison system have countered that incarcerated people in the throes of severe mental illness are housed at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, not at Wade. Incarcerated people at Wade either don’t have a severe mental illness or are in remission, they said.
“There is no objective risk of serious harm from housing offenders who either have no mental illness or whose mental illness is stable or in remission in an open bar cell in a modern prison setting,” attorneys for the prison system wrote in a legal brief filed Jan. 5. “Any suggestion that the offenders are isolated is false.”
Though it has claimed people with mental illness aren’t placed at Wade, the state corrections department acknowledged people at Wade are frequently placed on suicide watch. While on suicide watch, removing people’s clothes and mattress is required because those items can be used for self-harm, the prison’s attorneys said.
Nine to ten people per month are put on standard suicide watch and two people per month are placed on extreme suicide watch at Wade, according to attorneys for the prison system. The facility uses chemical sprays on incarcerated people about nine times per month, according to its attorneys.
Wade is also the prison where incarcerated people “with a history of disciplinary offenses that cannot be appropriately housed elsewhere can be transferred,” the attorneys wrote.
Placing people in restrictive housing is a necessary disciplinary tool at the facility. Incarcerated people can’t have access to group therapy while in lockdown for security reasons, the prison attorneys said.
Attorneys for the prison system also said some incarcerated people will cut themselves, bang their heads repeatedly against a wall or smear feces because they want to be transferred from Wade to another prison. It is not necessarily an indication of a severe mental illness, they said.
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The Department of Corrections initially asked U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote, an appointee of President Barack Obama, to dismiss the Wade lawsuit based on recent changes made at Wade. In the summer of 2021, the prison expanded its existing psychiatrist’s contract from two to three days per month and hired another psychiatrist to come in one more day per month, according to court documents.
Wade has also started looking for two more mental health staff members, though it’s not clear those jobs have been filled yet. Additionally, the prison solicited price quotes for new, softer suicide restraints, protective helmets and suicide-prevention mattresses. Wade also decreased the overall number of people in protective custody, according to the prison’s attorneys.
Foote declined to dismiss the case and said these recent upgrades in mental health won’t be taken into consideration in her ruling.
The current trial will only focus on conditions at the prison through March 2020, when the period for attorneys to collect evidence in the case initially closed. If Foote rules in favor of the plaintiffs, she will allow the prison system to introduce information about Wade’s improvements during a second trial this summer on “remedies” for the violations, she said in a recent court document.
In a win for the plaintiffs, Foote ruled in September that the lawsuit could proceed as a class action matter. This means her ruling wouldn’t just apply to the individual men who sued the prison, but to everyone held under extended lockdown at Wade. Foote also let a subclass proceed for incarcerated people held under extended lockdown who are perceived to have a qualifying disability related to mental illness.
Both the plaintiffs’ attorneys and Foote have complained that the lawsuit is not moving fast enough.
“This case has been pending since 2018 and is long overdue for a trial,” the judge wrote in November.
The length of the proceedings is adding to the state’s bill for the lawsuit. The plaintiffs aren’t seeking financial compensation from the state. If they prevail, the state will be forced to make changes to the way it handles restrictive housing and improve mental health care at Wade.
Prison systems and jails in similar situations sometimes choose to settle to avoid expensive litigation, but that’s unlikely to happen in this case.
Attorney General Jeff Landry oversees the contract with the private attorneys to represent the prison system. Landry is generally opposed to settlements in these cases, Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill said.
Through settlements, including consent decrees, the state can lose control over its own budget. Consent decrees involve outside monitoring by a judge, who has the power to tell the state what type of programs they have to implement, regardless of the cost.
Without commenting on the specifics of this case, Murrill said Landry prefers to go to trial rather than enter a consent decree. Even if they lose at trial, the state is still able to appeal that ruling.
“We don’t think consent decrees, as a policy matter, do us any favors on the state side,” she said.
The $2.9 million in legal fees for the Wade lawsuit have been split across two law firms.
An initial contract for $937,000 went to Kantrow Spaht Weaver & Blitzer in Baton Rouge and ran from Feb. 25, 2018 through the end of 2019. A second contract for $2 million went to Butler Snow, a law firm headquartered in Mississippi that absorbed Kantrow Spaht Weaver & Blitzer. It covered 2020 and 2021.
Both law firms have been politically active. Kantrow Spaht Weaver & Blitzer donated to political groups, including the Republican Party of Louisiana ($1,000), Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon ($3,000), U.S. Sen. John Kennedy ($1,000) and Landry ($1,000).
Butler Snow makes political donations directly through its firm and through the Butler Snow political action committee. It has donated to Sen. John Kennedy ($10,000), Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome ($20,000), Gov. John Bel Edwards ($5,000), Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin ($5,000), Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser ($1,500) and the Republican Party of Louisiana ($1,000).
“We don’t think consent decrees, as a policy matter, do us any favors on the state side.” – Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill
Butler Snow has also given State Treasurer John Schroder $26,500 and his leadership political action committee an additional $15,000. The firm handles public financing for government across the state, which is overseen by the state bond commission that Schroder leads. Schroder, a Republican, is also considering a run for governor in 2023.
“We don’t think consent decrees, as a policy matter, do us any favors on the state side.”
– Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill
Beyond its political giving, Butler Snow has two high-profile Republicans working in their New Orleans office: former U.S. Sen. David Vitter and former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, neither of whom are working on the Wade case.
Butler Snow attorneys declined to answer questions about the Wade lawsuit last year and directed media inquiries to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
The prison system has spent large amounts of money to fend off legal challenges in the past too. In 2016, the Associated Press reported Louisiana had spent more than $1 million over three years on a lawsuit brought by incarcerated people over extreme heat and the lack of air conditioning on Louisiana’s death row.
In the death row case, U.S. District Judge Brian Kelly admonished the prison system for the expense, asking: “Is this really what the state wants to do?”
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