In internal emails sent to prison staffers, Louisiana corrections officials initially said they were moving an inmate who was corresponding with an Advocate reporter out of concern for the convict’s safety — an explanation at odds with what they recently told the newspaper.
A Feb. 4 email circulated to staffers at two prisons said that inmate William Kissinger was being moved from his longtime perch at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel “due to protection concerns.”
The email said the order came from Seth Smith, a top aide to Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Smith also is the son-in-law of Burl Cain, the former longtime warden at Angola who resigned late last year — and who was also the target of biting criticisms in some of the emails Kissinger sent to Advocate reporter Maya Lau over a period of months.
Corrections officials told the newspaper this week that Kissinger was punished for “defiance” and for “general prohibited behavior” over his correspondence with Lau.
Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the department, suggested that perhaps Kissinger — a convicted murderer who is serving a life sentence — had committed other infractions, but she would not specify what they were.
“The Department does not feel that the Advocate story … is reflective of all pertinent facts in this case,” Laborde wrote in an email Tuesday. “We reiterate our belief that offender Kissinger’s rights were not violated during this process. Any offender that abuses privileges can lose those privileges.
“The Department will respond appropriately in due time,” she added.
Laborde did not respond to questions posed by the newspaper about whether, in meting out Kissinger’s punishment, corrections officials considered a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling holding that inmates have a right to unfettered correspondence with the news media and others.
Federal judges have differed on the issue, but the 5th Circuit covers Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, meaning its opinions are generally considered the law of the land here until they are overturned or the Supreme Court settles the matter.
Paul Wright, founder of the Human Rights Defense Center and longtime editor of Prison Legal News, said he was surprised that Louisiana prison officials apparently ignored the jurisprudence in disciplining Kissinger.
“We’ve corresponded with people from Angola for years,” Wright said. “We send confidential communications all the time in our capacity as journalists. We haven’t had any problems with our ability, in our editorial capacity, to communicate with prisoners via confidential mail.”
Wright speculated that correctional officials cracked down on Kissinger’s correspondence with The Advocate because they didn’t like the newspaper’s coverage.
“No one really likes a critical press,” he said. “Probably, if Kissinger was making chitchat, talking about what a great prison Burl Cain runs, we would not be talking on the phone today. But as soon as you’re being critical of the people running the place, you’re in for a problem.”
A number of Kissinger’s emails concerned possible self-dealing by Cain, who stepped down in January after 20 years as warden. Kissinger’s punishment landed Feb. 4 — a month after Cain’s retirement but during a time when he continued to occupy the warden’s house at Angola.
Kissinger’s final email to Lau, sent Feb. 1, questioned the whereabouts of a tractor, nine Percheron horses and other “unaccounted-for property,” as the inmate put it. He also promised a letter with more information was forthcoming in days.
Wright said the issue goes beyond the correctional department’s treatment of Kissinger. More broadly, he said he suspects the punishment was meant to send a message to others.
“I think the bigger thing we shouldn’t lose sight of is that a lot of this is about intimidating others into silence who might be thinking about speaking,” he said. “That’s a big thing that often gets overlooked. I think they’re feeling the heat, and they’re trying to intimidate Kissinger in particular and others in general, as well as you as a journalist and your publication, from covering these issues.”
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.