east baton rouge parish prison stock

Pictured is a holding cell at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison used during the intake process at the facility.

Several national criminal justice advocacy groups have filed a class action lawsuit against judges in the 19th Judicial District Court, alleging their bail practices discriminate against poor people. 

The lawsuit claims hundreds of people, most of them poor, Black or both, languish in pretrial detention in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison for long periods of time simply because they cannot pay the bail that has been set as the condition for their release. 

"This system inflicts devastating harm on people solely because of their poverty and violates the most fundamental of American axioms," the lawsuit says. "That all people are equal under the law and are innocent until they are found guilty." 

Attorneys with the Fair Fight Initiative, MacArthur Justice Center and Advancement Project National Office filed the lawsuit late Monday. A judicial commissioner, the bail program coordinator, the warden of the prison and the East Baton Rouge sheriff were also named as defendants. 

The filing comes one week after a 61-year-old man died while in custody at the jail, unable to bond out for the minor offenses on which he had been booked. Marcus Morris, who had a history of homelessness and mental illness, is the 44th person to die in the jail since 2012.

East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office spokesperson Casey Rayborn Hicks, commenting on behalf of both the sheriff and warden, said in a statement that they are "mandated by law to carry out the Judges’ orders. [They are] named in this suit due to their legal obligation to carry out these orders, though they have no legal authority or discretion in such determinations."

Judge Tarvald Smith declined to comment for this article due to pending litigation. Judges Ronald Johnson and Bonnie Jackson, Commissioner Nicole Robinson and Bail Project Coordinator Frank Howze — all named as defendants in the lawsuit — did not respond to request for comment by late Tuesday afternoon.

Four plaintiffs named in the case have similar situations to Morris: arrested for relatively minor crimes and saddled with a bail amount they cannot afford to pay. One plaintiff is homeless, while another has been unemployed since 2018 due to medical problems. Other plaintiffs claim they are at risk of mistreatment, such as suffering from stage IV prostate cancer or facing harassment for their religious beliefs.  

Plaintiffs describe a situation where a judge spends seconds reviewing their bond amount and assigning them a public defender during virtual "callout" hearings. When some of the plaintiffs tell the judges or commissioner they cannot afford the amount set, or ask for a different kind of bond or a bond reduction, they are rebuffed. 

The Advocate reported last year that, on average, inmates at Parish Prison who have yet to be convicted of a crime are held for about two months, approximately 55 days. That same report noted the jail incarcerates people at a rate higher than that of New Orleans and Lafayette. 

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In addition to criticizing what advocates characterize in a press release as "the immoral and unconstitutional practice of wealth-based incarceration" at the jail, the lawsuit condemns the facility itself as "crumbling and decrepit" — conditions made all the more dire by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  

"In a recently filed case challenging the Jail’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a medical expert who inspected the facility described it as the worst jail he had ever seen in his 16-year career and as bad as a jail that was 100 years old," the lawsuit says. 

The lawsuit has also dropped at a critical time for CorrectHealth, the private company currently in charge of prison medical care, which may face the end of their contract at the facility. City officials announced this year they plan to solicit proposals for a new contract, acknowledging the outsized inmate death rate and other concerns about CorrectHealth.  

The lawsuit calls CorrectHealth's oversight "nothing short of catastrophic," citing limited staffing and coronavirus concerns.  

“Every day, Baton Rouge officials choose not to exercise discretion and provide non-financial conditions for release; instead, they choose to incarcerate and endanger members of the community for being unable to afford their freedom,” said Tiffany Yang, staff attorney at the Advancement Project National Office. “For dozens of people … being accused of a crime in East Baton Rouge was effectively a death sentence.”

On Tuesday afternoon, members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition huddled outside of City Hall in a cold rain to lend vocal support to the lawsuit.

Rev. Alexis Anderson, an EBRPPRC member, said that one of the saddest parts of Morris' death is that the coalition has been fighting against cash bail and sounding the alarm for a long time. 

"It didn't have to happen," she said. 

Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com