Decrying the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison as a "death trap," jail reform activists shared stories of the prisoners — often those with mental health conditions — who have died behind bars.
The Promise of Justice Initiative was presenting to the Metro Council on Wednesday a report on the 25 deaths in parish prison between 2012 and 2016, a rate the report says is 2.5 times the national average.
One was 24-year-old Lamar Johnson, who committed suicide following a period of delusions and paranoia, the report states. The parish prison shows a "disrespect of life," his mother, Linda Franks, told the Metro Council.
"You should be ashamed," she said.
At first, Lamar Alexander Johnson tried to see the positive side of being taken to jail.The 27-year-old father, who was on his way to pick up …
Others said family members received inadequate care for illnesses unrelated to mental health and pointed out that the jail population is largely people who have not been convicted. The report calls for better medical service, suicide prevention training for all staff, more staff, reducing pre-trial detention and greater transparency of jail operations.
"This is a human rights issue," said councilwoman Erika Green, who had asked for the report to be presented.
Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg said she didn't want to minimize the deaths of people in custody, but she did say the parish has sought to do better by privatizing health care at the prison in the past two years. She wondered if the contractors had data that could demonstrate whether any improvements have been made.
Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said the Promise of Justice report is enough to compel action and promised to follow up with advocates.
In 2013, David O'Quin, a 39-year-old schizophrenic artist, was tied to a chair at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison for the better part of tw…
Nevertheless, council members said that new facilities would take money, which would likely require buy-in from taxpayers. Councilman Matt Watson urged everyone to back the proposed Bridge Center, a crisis center that could take in people who need mental health or substance abuse treatment as an alternate to jail.
Councilman LaMont Cole said it is also worth investigating bond reform and examining whether judges are sentencing offenders fairly.
Advocates are waiting to see if there's weight behind the council members' words.
"Twenty-five people have died, and all we have are words. Are you embarrassed? Because I'm ashamed," said Jennifer Harding, a local activist.
In other business, city bus routes will be changing after the Metro Council gave their blessing to a new service plan.
A pair of riders spoke out about the plan, though most opposition from council members and the public was not to the proposal itself, but whether the Capital Area Transit System did enough to publicize the changes.
Green, who serves on the CATS board, challenged that assessment. In her district, transit authorities showed up to a community business meeting, two of her district town halls, a neighborhood association meeting, plus a public hearing specifically about the new routes.
Looking to emphasize its most popular bus routes and trim the less-used lines, the Capital Area Transit System's board voted Tuesday to close …
CATS has 1,836 bus stops, CEO Bill Deville said. The new plan will eliminate 145 little-used stops to focus service on more popular routes. CATS officials have said they expect the changes to be implemented early next year.
The new service plan ultimately won support from council members Denise Amoroso, Chauna Banks, Collins-Lewis, Freiberg, Green, Dwight Hudson, Watson, Trae Welch and Scott Wilson. Chandler Loupe and Tara Wicker were absent.
LaMont Cole was present but did not vote; he said that as a former bus rider, he thought CATS users may not have known about the proposed changes. Cole applauded Deville's work and said his desire to delay the implementation of the new plan was to help get more public input. Freiberg said that she had been to several meetings and that few bus users attended.
The council also agreed reimburse the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development $261,000 for money spent in Smiley Heights that fell short of federal benchmarks. Local authorities did not complete an environmental review before building a charter school, and an automotive repair program failed to attract enough low- to moderate-income participants to qualify for HUD funding.
East Baton Rouge must pay back more than a quarter-million dollars of federal money, marking the second time in as many years regulators found…