NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An inmate’s decision to withdraw from a lawsuit alleging brutal treatment of mentally ill inmates at a north Louisiana prison prompted a warning to state officials from a federal judge: Don’t grant privileges to inmates in hopes of undermining the lawsuit.
The state Attorney General’s Office says the judge has nothing to worry about.
No deals were made between prison officials at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer and the inmate, who “apparently decided on his own” to withdraw from the suit, Attorney General Jeff Landry said in a court filing. And the inmate remains under a restrictive “extended lockdown” status, despite assertions to the contrary, Landry said.
The lawsuit was filed last year by the Advocacy Center in New Orleans. The inmate in question, Damonte Henry, wasn’t an original plaintiff but court records show lawyers filed motions to add him in March. They moved to dismiss him in early May after he wrote them saying he wanted to “terminate all communications” with the center, and after they obtained hand-written letters he wrote to Col. Lonnie Nail, an official at Wade.
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“Blessings, I am writing to come speak with you about a previous agreement we talked about and I would like to make sure everything is still good,” Henry says in one letter to Nail. In his final letter to Nail, Henry wrote: "I kept my word, so please do the same."
Advocacy Center lawyers said in their filing they believe Henry was removed from “extended lockdown” status — an extreme form of solitary confinement that has drawn criticism from national monitors — and that he “refuses to communicate with counsel, seemingly resultant from an agreement between himself and Defendant Nail.”
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote of Shreveport dismissed Henry from the lawsuit. She also noted the allegation that Henry had been removed from extended lockdown. Foote told state lawyers to make sure prison officials don’t “grant or withhold privileges in order to undermine the progress of this litigation.”
This is the second inmate who has asked to withdraw from the lawsuit, which has become "combative" and "contentious" case between the defense attorneys and plaintiffs, Foote has noted in prior rulings. Anthony Tellis, a prisoner named in the initial complaint filed in February 2018, asked in March to be removed from the class action.
Foote said in her Tuesday ruling that the similarity in the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of Tellis and Henry "increases this Court's concern."
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"In the future, if a plaintiff or a proposed named plaintiff is moved out of extended lockdown, this Court expects that transfer to be for a legitimate penological reason," Foote wrote. She said if evidence suggests defendants continue to make deals with prisoners in the lawsuit, she will step in.
But Landry’s Wednesday filing said Henry remains on extended lockdown. “In fact, all of the Plaintiffs’ allegations regarding a supposed ‘deal’ and the fate of offender Henry are patently false and were made without an adequate investigation into their basis in fact,” Landry’s filing said.
Accompanying the filing is an affidavit from Nail, who stated he has made no deal with Henry. “The letters sent by Mr. Henry ... were unsolicited and do not reflect any discussions or agreement between me and Mr. Henry,” the May 22 affidavit stated.
The class-action lawsuit alleges that Wade officials subject inmates with mental health problems to inhumane conditions, providing them with inadequate treatment and “haphazard medication.” It says the condition of prisoners with mental illness deteriorates when they are put on extended lockdown. It accuses Wade staff of responding to symptoms with chemical spray, reduction of outdoor time, moving prisoners to extreme isolation or chaining them in restraint chairs. And it says in some cases cells are allowed to become extremely cold during the winter to punish behavior.
The Advocacy Center of Louisiana, which protects people with disabilities and senior citizens, was recently allowed to join the case as a plaintiff, along with the prisoners.
The department has denied the allegations in public statements and court filings.
Advocate staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.