A longtime inmate of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola says he was moved to another prison and faced other punishments as retaliation for corresponding with an Advocate reporter as the newspaper published stories about improprieties in the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
State corrections officials confirmed that they moved inmate William Kissinger to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in large part because of his correspondence with reporter Maya Lau, though they say it was not done out of spite. Rather, they say, Kissinger’s writings and other behavior violated correctional policies.
Legal scholars have questioned whether prison staff even have a right to read letters between an inmate and the media, pointing to a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal decision that states that prisoners have “a right to send media mail unopened and to receive media mail that has been opened only for the inspection of contraband in the inmate’s presence.”
Computer kiosks are available in housing units, corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde wrote in an email. She emphasized that inmates don’t have Internet access but can access electronic communication, though the privilege may be curtailed or revoked for discipline.
Kissinger’s willingness to speak his mind has gotten him into trouble with corrections officials before.
In the mid-1990s, he raised pointed questions in letters to federal health officials about a can-relabeling operation at Angola that then-Warden Burl Cain had set up with a private company using inmate labor.
Kissinger, who is serving a life sentence for murder and manslaughter, said at the time the business “stinks of impropriety” and is “shrouded in secrecy.” He was quickly demoted from his position as an inmate legal advocate to farm work, a move Cain admitted in court was retribution for his outspokenness.
A federal judge ordered Cain to lay off Kissinger. Meanwhile, the plant was shut down after a federal investigation, and one owner pleaded guilty to a charge of mislabeling a food product.
Last year, an Advocate story referenced the can-relabeling scandal, and in December, Lau contacted Kissinger as the newspaper — and several government agencies — investigated the prison and its staff. The two corresponded until January, mostly by email.
Kissinger described life at the prison and responses around Angola to articles about the warden and his domain. He also shared his own concerns and suggested areas for further investigation.
Then Kissinger went silent. A few weeks later, Lau received a handwritten letter from Kissinger — now incarcerated at Hunt, in St. Gabriel.
“Angola snatched me up, chained me up, and drove me straight to Hunt, and put me in ‘the dungeon’ (punitive cells) in the middle of the night on February 4th,” Kissinger wrote.
“In a ‘kangaroo’-style disciplinary court I was found guilty of 2 serious rule violations for things I said to you in our emails. As a result, I have been stripped of basically everything and am now housed in a punitive cellblock, basically until they decide to let me out.”
Kissinger has been moved to a working cell block at Hunt, Laborde said last week.
“His behavior going forward will dictate his future housing and other assignments,” she wrote.
She confirmed that the inmate was under investigation due to his correspondence with Lau.
After a disciplinary hearing, Kissinger was found guilty on one count apiece of defiance and general prohibited behavior.
Both rules are sweeping in their scope. Defiance includes acts ranging from physical violence to throwing feces and eluding staff. It also includes “abusive or insulting conversation, correspondence, phone calls or gestures by an offender.”
General prohibited behavior includes “any behavior not specifically enumerated herein that may impair or threaten the security or stability of the unit or well-being of an employee, visitor, guest, offender or their families.”
Kissinger’s emails are not threatening or profane, nor does he discuss committing any crimes. Mostly, he writes about goings-on at the prison; his descriptions include criticisms of the staff.
At one point, he mentioned possible graft, and remarked that Angola seemed to send a lot of business to members of Cain’s “retinue.”
“When you do a ‘summation’ article or some-such thing, PLEASE use the headline or sub-head ‘Pigs get fat, Hogs get slaughtered.’ It would be so fitting. :-)” Kissinger wrote.
The expression was a favorite of Cain’s. The longtime warden resigned late last year after The Advocate published stories detailing his business dealings with friends and relatives of inmates.
Leaving aside the question of whether Kissinger’s emails were objectionable, it is unclear whether Angola staff should have been reading them in the first place.
In the 1978 case Guajardo v. Etelle, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over Louisiana — sided with inmates who sought to write to journalists without wardens peering over their shoulders.
“An informed public depends upon accurate, effective reporting by news media,” the decision reads. “In refusing to block inmate-press correspondence and in protecting it from censorship we protect not only the interest of the inmates, but that of the public at large, and we move the decisions related to prison conditions out of the federal courthouse and into the public forum where they belong.”
In that decision, the court issued “a really strong statement” in favor of access to the media, said Pace University Law Professor Michael Mushlin, author of the book “Rights of Prisoners.”
To Mushlin, it makes sense to protect whistleblowers and try to open up — to “penetrate this black hole” — that is the prison system, which wields immense power over individuals, largely out of sight.
“You have the right in the 5th Circuit to send mail unread to the recognized media. ... I think the rationale of this case makes a lot of sense,” he said.
The American Bar Association also addresses contact between inmates and journalists in its 2011 “Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners.”
“The informational needs and interests furthered by affording members of the media broad access to prisons cannot be met if correctional authorities retaliate against prisoners for their lawful communications with media representatives. ... Such retaliation therefore must be prohibited, and these prohibitions strictly enforced,” the association wrote.
Kissinger’s case is murky for other reasons. For practical purposes, and because she was aware of past retribution against Kissinger, Lau corresponded with the inmate using an alias.
In his outstanding appeal, Kissinger asserts that he told a colonel when he was first contacted by Lau. That officer then passed the message on to Deputy Warden Bruce Dodd, Kissinger wrote.
“(Kissinger) was specifically told by these supervisors and ranking officials that it was ‘okay to write her. ... don’t worry about it,’ ” the appeal reads.
But at some point, after they became aware of the specifics of the correspondence, Kissinger was found in violation of correctional rules, Laborde, the spokeswoman, confirmed.
“The department is not aware of any circumstances where offender Kissinger’s rights were violated as it relates to this investigation,” she said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.