Victory a Long Time Coming: In Historic Court Win Louisiana Civil Rights Groups Bring to Light Overwhelming Medical Disparities at Angola

I write this today in celebration. This has been a long time coming. Finally that voice crying out in the wilderness got heard.

For those who don’t know the background of this historic case, let me fill you in. In 2015 civil rights lawyers in Louisiana filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the more than 6,000 people imprisoned at Angola. Lewis v. Cain argued that patients at Angola had undergone inexcusable and abhorrent treatment, often resulting in continued suffering in place of treatment, refusing to test for ailments despite symptoms, being afflicted with preventable illnesses, over-medication, and untimely death. This win, six years later, is a tremendous moment and a monumental turning point, in DOC accountability.

Mercedes Montagnes, Executive Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative and co-lead counsel for the Plaintiffs, hit the nail on the head when she said:

“This ruling today affirms what we have been saying for years, the men incarcerated at Angola have been subjected to completely inadequate medical care and discrimination based on their disabilities. Going forward, prison officials will have to start fulfilling their constitutional obligation to provide adequate medical care and disability accommodations to everyone incarcerated there, no matter how young or old, healthy or sick.”

When I was incarcerated at Angola, I saw firsthand what the guys went through. For example, you see guys today who are in wheelchairs? They were in wheelchairs back in prison too. This was back before the ADA. We had to pick them up out of their chair to get on the yard. We didn’t have a bunch of those things, the ramps, everything you see talked about in this litigation. This took a lot of trial and struggle. When the prison officials first realized they had to do something, it was due to bad weather. Sometime in the ’90s there was a storm that came down, and with it there was a real chance that the river would flood, and Angola is right in the middle of a bow in the Mississippi. That’s when they realized they had to get these folks in wheelchairs out of there because we didn’t have the structures to keep them safe.

It should not take so much effort, so much tragedy, to force people to do the right thing.

We were the experimentation piece. I remember how they used to give us these blister packs of medication, when your back hurt or whatever, and you didn’t even know what you were taking. Then, years later, it would come out that something they were giving us caused cancer. We were the guinea pigs. A friend of mine, Finny, got out and I took him to the Formerly Incarcerated Transition (FIT) clinic, something we had gotten up and running because the medical treatment he received in prison is the sort that people had to sue the prison over. Finny was on, I kid you not, probably 20–25 different medications coming out of Angola. After his appointment at the FIT clinic, that went down to one.

This win, this litigation, and legislation on similar subjects, is why I do what I do. This is a long time coming, and I am really praising the judge for being courageous enough to do it. — Norris Henderson, founder and Executive Director VOTE

Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) is a Louisiana based organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people. We are committed to restoring rights.