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SPLC lawsuit against unconstitutionally deficient medical care at Angola prison in Louisiana goes to trial

Alton Adams began having problems with his right leg soon after he was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Medical staff at the largest maximum-security prison in the country – also known as Angola – told Adams, who suffers from artery disease, that he needed a stent to address his circulation problem.

They also said the state had no money to pay for the procedure. Without the treatment, Adams developed a blood clot that led to the partial amputation of his right leg below the knee.

Since then, he has had two more partial amputations that have brought his leg down to the mid-thigh, and he’s having problems that could lead to a left leg amputation, too. A visiting doctor who examined Adams said he could not believe that Angola staff had missed the obvious infection that led to the amputations, which could have been avoided.

The serious lack of medical care at Angola – including failure to properly diagnose and treat patients, unacceptable delays in treatment, and an insufficient number of qualified nurses and doctors – is unconstitutionally inadequate and jeopardizes the lives of people who are incarcerated there, according to a class action lawsuit that goes to trial today. Adams, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, will be present in the courtroom during the trial.

The SPLC and other organizations argue in the lawsuit that medical care provided at Angola is fundamentally and grossly deficient, and that it is far below constitutional and statutory requirements. The inadequate health care at Angola has contributed to the fact that Louisiana has the highest rate of prison deaths per capita in the country, the SPLC and the other groups argue.

“People incarcerated at Angola have suffered from permanent injury and even death as a result of prison officials’ chronic failure to provide adequate medical care,” said Jamila Johnson, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC.

“This includes, among other deficiencies, prison officials’ withholding of a drug that is highly effective in treating Hepatitis C – a potentially deadly disease that disproportionately affects people in prison – just because prison officials do not want to pay the cost of the drug. These unsafe, inhumane and unconstitutional levels of treatment harm people during their incarceration, hamper their reentry into society, and violate the U.S. Constitution as well as federal law. We are asking the court to order prison officials to stop endangering people’s lives, and to start fulfilling their obligation to provide adequate medical care and disability accommodations to incarcerated people at Angola.”

Angola is violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” by ignoring the serious medical needs of people incarcerated there, the lawsuit states. It further states that Angola is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, on behalf of incarcerated people with mobility issues who are physically unable to access parts of the prison.

People incarcerated at Angola have reported horror story after horror story, according to the lawsuit. They include a man who was denied medical attention four times during a stroke, leaving him blind and paralyzed; a man who was denied access to a specialist for four years while his throat cancer advanced; and a blind man who was denied a cane for 16 years.

Several of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit have passed away since the case was filed in 2015, due in significant part to the defendants’ negligence. For example, Shannon Hurd, who was serving a life sentence for the robbery of $14, made years of sick call requests for symptoms of renal cancer, but was not tested until late 2015, by which time his cancer had fatally metastasized. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 42. His family is expected to testify.

Farrell Sampier, another plaintiff, who suffers from paralysis from a non-fatal disease, is expected to testify about the lack of adequate medical care and his time being improperly placed in hospice care while at Angola.

In addition to the SPLC, The Promise of Justice Initiative, the ACLU of Louisiana, Advocacy Center, the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll and attorney Jeffrey Dubner are representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

The outcome of the case will affect the lives of at least 6,000 people at Angola.

The SPLC continues to fight inhumane conditions of confinement in prisons throughout the South.  

Read more about the SPLC's other active prison cases in Alabama and Mississippi.