When her son was arrested on a misdemeanor crime and booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in 2014, Angelo Moses did not anticipate that his life was in danger.
But 16 days later, Antwoin Harden died of a blood clot that entered his lungs — which his mother blames on a lack of treatment for his sickle cell anemia. Jail officials have said Harden refused treatment but Moses faults them for failing to provide her son with medical care she believes would have saved his life.
"Four years later, I still don't have answers as to why my son died," Moses said. "It's been hell. So I continue to say that Antwoin Harden died for no reason."
Harden was one of 25 men who died inside East Baton Rouge Parish jail between 2012 and 2016 — an inmate death rate 2.5 times the national average, according to a new report released Wednesday by researchers with the Promise of Justice Initiative. The jail has long been criticized for its outdated facilities and substandard conditions, but researchers say those problems are indicative of larger statewide issues.
Louisiana leads the nation in prisoner deaths per capita. It also until recently had long held a record for incarcerating more people than all other states. Oklahoma came out on top earlier this year after the Louisiana legislature passed 10 criminal justice reform bills aimed in part at reducing the state's prison population.
"Despite our vast experience in locking people up (in Louisiana), state and local officials can't provide safe conditions for their inmates," said Andrea Armstrong, one of the study's authors and a professor at Loyola Law School. "We incarcerate more people and they die at faster rates."
Armstrong and her coauthor, Promise of Justice staff attorney Shanita Farris, spoke about their findings at a news conference Wednesday afternoon on the levee in downtown Baton Rouge. The authors allege the conditions inside East Baton Rouge Parish Prison highlight the problems there and in other facilities that become especially harmful for three distinct groups: minorities, the mentally ill and the poor.
The large majority of the people included in the report — 22 out of 25 — were being held pretrial and had not been convicted of a crime. At least five had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness or showed signs of one, according to a Reuters investigation published earlier this year.
Among those who have recently died inside the jail are 17-year-old Tyrin Colbert, whose cellmate choked him during an argument over a blanket, and Randall Toler, 25, who was accused of shoplifting and died after just two days in Parish Prison because he was diabetic and didn't receive his regular doses of insulin, according to the report.
Others have killed themselves because a lack of adequate mental health care services left some inmates desperate enough to take their own lives, researchers argue.
"These cases are not coincidental mishaps, but rather reveal the disturbingly predictable results of over incarceration, understaffing and an excessively punitive approach," the authors conclude. "These cases reveal (the jail's) breach of the community's promise to ensure the safety and dignity of the people it detains."
The report claims the problems arise from inadequate medical care and mental health treatment as well as failure to train guards on how to deal with people suffering from mental illness.
The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office disputes the claim that the jail's death rate is well above the national average and points to pre-existing conditions in several deaths included in the report.
The report is the second of its kind from the Promise of Justice Initiative, which released a similar publication last year detailing the experiences of people arrested while protesting the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in summer 2016 and held in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. The New Orleans group has launched a campaign advocating for better treatment of Baton Rouge prisoners.
The group also became involved in starting a new reform coalition in January that's dedicated to the same goal and includes relatives of inmates who have died inside the jail as well as advocates from Baton Rouge and other cities.
Local officials including Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Warden Dennis Grimes have for years acknowledged some persistent deficiencies in their outdated and overcrowded jail. But parish residents have repeatedly voted down proposed tax measures that would fund construction of a new facility or provide more services to people with mental illness who often land behind bars.
Casey Rayborn Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, referred all questions about inmate medical and mental health care to city-parish officials. She said the sheriff is limited in his responsibilities — security and access to medical care — while the jail's medical staff determine what kind of care each inmate receives. The city-parish government privatized the medical unit last year in a move meant to improve services.
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said her administration "is committed to providing quality healthcare at our parish jail." She said CorrectHealth, the company that took over management of the medical program last year, has brought in a new management team and boosted staffing levels.
Broome also said "addressing mental health in our parish is a key component in reducing incarceration rates" and that she hopes residents will support a proposition on the fall ballot to fund the Bridge Center, a treatment facility that has been in the works for years but has so far been unsuccessful in winning voter approval.
Hicks, meanwhile, firmly challenged the claim that the East Baton Rouge prisoner death rate is 2.5 times the national average. She argued the rate drops below that benchmark when taking into account the total number of inmates who pass through the jail each year, instead of the average number incarcerated at a given time — "the only way to compare apples to apples."
Moreover, Hicks said, the majority of deaths "have been the result of poor health and pre-existing conditions," some of which result from the effects of drug addiction or prolonged drug use among inmates.
But prison reform advocates say they intend to continue fighting for the basic rights of incarcerated people in Baton Rouge, pledging to keep speaking out until enough residents start listening — and agree to dedicate some tax dollars to the cause.
"First we have to shed light on all the decisions that led us to this place and start thinking about how we reimagine public safety," said Rev. Alexis Anderson with the Parish Prison reform coalition. "Because when you take someone's freedom away, you have an obligation to protect their safety."