Death row heat suit attorneys seek $775,000 in fees, costs _lowres

The Louisiana State Pennitentiary at Angola.

Grossly inadequate medical care has put the 6,000-plus prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola at serious risk, while many other inmates at the prison have suffered unnecessary injury and — in at least one case — death, a federal court lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

The suit’s filing in Baton Rouge federal court comes as a federal appeals court considers a similar lawsuit, filed in 2013, that contends hot conditions on death row at the maximum-security prison constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The new suit, filed by some of the same lawyers involved in the earlier suit, claims inadequate medical care at the prison also violates the constitutional ban on such punishment, as well as federal disability statutes.

Angola’s medical care, the suit alleges, worsened when Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge, which used to serve prisoners with medical emergencies, was closed during the reorganization of the state’s charity hospital system. Even basic screenings and treatments are now being broadly denied, the suit alleges.

The 63-page suit filed Wednesday by a dozen Angola inmates seeks to be certified as a class action on behalf of all inmates at the prison, and lays out in graphic detail several horror stories reported by inmates allegedly subjected to deficient medical care.

One prisoner claims he was denied access to a specialist for four years while his throat cancer advanced. Another inmate contends he was denied medical attention four times during a stroke, which left him blind and paralyzed. And a blind prisoner alleges he was denied a cane for 16 years.

In many cases, only the specter of legal action spurred the prison to provide long-delayed medical care, the inmates’ attorneys say.

“The grave systemic deficiencies in the delivery of medical care at Angola lead to appalling outcomes,” Jeffrey Dubner, one of those attorneys, said in a prepared statement. “Preventable illness, injury and death are not part of a prison sentence, yet Angola officials are pervasively subjecting the men in their custody to these risks.”

Angola’s problem areas include delays in evaluation, treatment and access to specialty care; denial of medically necessary treatments such as surgeries, medication, medical devices and physical therapy; inappropriately managed medications; poor follow-up care; and a lack of qualified staff, the suit claims.

The suit seeks an injunction that would bring the prison in line with constitutional standards in the delivery of medical care.

Angola is no longer under the oversight of a federal consent decree as it was in the late 1990s.

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The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and Angola’s wardens, are named as defendants in the suit.

Pam Laborde, a DPSC spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the department had no comment on the pending litigation.

The suit has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, the same judge who ruled in late 2013 that high heat indexes on Angola’s death row amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Jackson last May approved the state’s court-mandated remediation plan and ordered its immediate implementation, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order in June. The appeals court heard arguments in the case in February but has not issued a decision.

The new suit says the “inevitable consequences of Defendants’ denials of care are tragically illustrated” by Angola inmate James Johnson’s death on March 10.

Johnson was treated for multiple myeloma until 2012, when the defendants told him the treatment was too costly to continue, the suit alleges. Instead of chemotherapy, he received steroids that caused his legs to swell and his blood sugar to remain high. His cancer progressed to the point where he could not have a broken arm set due to the deterioration of his shoulder. He was placed in hospice care in June. Before his death nine months later, Johnson said his doctors made rounds once every one to two months, the suit claims.

The lead named plaintiff, Joseph Lewis Jr., is 81 and arrived at Angola in 2012 with chronic throat problems. Doctors there told him his throat issues would improve and prescribed a spray. He was finally taken to a hospital in January and was diagnosed with throat cancer in April, the suit says.

Rufus White, 40, who has been at Angola for 12 years, waited more than two years for a chest X-ray to investigate chronic chest pain. Clyde Carter, 56, an Angola inmate for 27 years, has suffered from an apparent torn knee ligament since December 2013 with neither diagnosis nor treatment, despite submitting roughly 15 sick call forms without receiving appropriate treatment.

The suit also says a 63-year-old inmate with a family history of kidney failure has been urinating blood for more than four years with no diagnosis. He was taken to a hospital in July but officials refused to admit him because Angola staff did not send his records to the hospital, the suit alleges. He later returned and had a camera inserted into his penis, which left it torn and bleeding.

The plaintiff inmates are being defended by The Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans; the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Washington, D.C.; the Advocacy Center in Lafayette; and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Louisiana.

The probe into the delivery of medical care at Angola began more than two years ago as a result of prisoners’ reports of grossly inadequate medical care. Attorneys interviewed more than 200 men, saying they found scores whose problems echo those of the 12 named plaintiffs.

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.