On July 24, 2021, Kermit Parker — also known as inmate No. 129332 — wouldn’t get on his knees.
Officers were seeking to restrain Parker, who, along with scores of other incarcerated people, had been on hunger strike to protest solitary confinement conditions at Louisiana’s David Wade Correctional Center in July.
When he wouldn’t kneel, the officers yelled, pepper-sprayed and shackled him, and wrote him up.
The charge? “Aggravated disobedience.”
The punishment? A month and a half in solitary confinement.
The suffocating walls, the eerie darkness, and the rock-hard, stone-cold floor of the 3.5-foot by 8.5-foot cell were familiar to Parker. A year and a half earlier, in January 2020, Parker had been written up for hitting another prisoner with a broomstick at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. Parker denied the allegations, but he was found guilty in a disciplinary hearing and was sentenced to 90 days in disciplinary segregation — a form of solitary confinement in which he would be locked in his cell for 23 hours a day.
To serve out his time, he was transferred to David Wade, which has been used as a disciplinary camp in the Louisiana prison system and is currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit that claims incarcerated people are kept in restrictive housing for extended periods of time, refused adequate mental health care, and regularly mocked and humiliated by guards. (Lawyers for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, or DPSC, have argued in legal filings that it provides adequate mental health care and uses restrictive housing “appropriately” to “deliver public safety” at David Wade.)
Parker was told that he would be transferred back to Elayn Hunt at the end of his 90 days.
But instead, he spent over 18 months in isolation, where he says he was denied medications for his medical conditions, stripped of his possessions — including his wedding ring — and pepper-sprayed and abused by guards.
“Pain was part of my sentence,” Parker wrote in a letter shared with The Intercept and The Lens, adding that it had taken a toll on him. “Unlike the inmates they’ve paralyzed with fear,” he continued, “I will be a voice for the frightened, the beaten, the broken, the forgotten!”
Though his time at David Wade lasted far longer than his disciplinary sentence, the fact that Parker was even given a specific sentence in the first place is the result of a new “disciplinary sanctions matrix” meant to provide a transparent rubric for punishment throughout the Louisiana prison system. Previously, prisoners could be sentenced to what was called “extended lockdown” for indefinite periods of time. Now the matrix mandates a range of punishment for specific disciplinary infractions and supposedly sets upper limits on the use of disciplinary segregation. The reform, developed in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice — a national criminal justice reform organization — was piloted at two facilities starting in 2018 and introduced across the system in early 2020. It became official department policy in March 2021. In spite of the new policies, many prisoners, like Parker, are still facing indefinite lockdown.
Interviews with 17 people in four Louisiana prisons, reviews of individual disciplinary records, and analyses of limited data provided by DPSC show that Parker’s case is not an anomaly. Despite the limits on solitary confinement outlined in the matrix, the prison system has continued to put people in solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time for minor and ambiguously defined offenses that are often nonviolent. In letters shared with The Intercept and The Lens, more than a dozen people who were transferred to David Wade from Elayn Hunt to serve out disciplinary charges wrote that they were kept in solitary confinement long past their sentences, in dire conditions. The matrix has allowed DPSC to continue doing what it’s always done, they argued, now under the banner of reform.
DPSC records, obtained through public records requests, show that people were being held in segregation at similar rates to before the implementation of the matrix — often for nonviolent charges — and frequently for months on end. They also show that rather than being released to the general population, people are sometimes moved from disciplinary segregation to “preventative segregation.” That form of restrictive housing is not used in response to any specific disciplinary infraction but rather when a classification board determines that a prisoner is “a danger to the good order and discipline of the institution.” Practically, there is little difference between the two.
DPSC has intermittently responded to questions pertaining to the allegations made by incarcerated people and advocates regarding the matrix. In an email, a spokesperson for DPSC called Parker a “continual disciplinary problem,” noting that he has had 280 write-ups, and defended officers’ use of pepper spray as necessary to “quell a disturbance.” Seth Smith, DPSC chief of operations, granted an interview to The Intercept and The Lens in March, during which he answered questions about the matrix.
The agency did not respond to a detailed list of questions regarding the findings of this investigation, sent to them last month, until shortly after this article was published. In an email, Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson, said that the department “has dramatically reduced the overall use of restrictive housing” and that its goal “has always been, and remains, to reduce the usage of restrictive housing.”
But he said there have been “growing pains” in the process, citing Covid-19 and “resource challenges on housing and operations.” He also declined to comment further on specific allegations made by incarcerated people.
Publicly, DPSC has admitted that despite the intent of the matrix to provide clear sanctions guidelines, prisoners are frequently held in solitary confinement beyond what is called for due to lack of bed space in other less restrictive settings and inadequate staffing.
Still, prison officials suggest that the policy has reduced the number of people in restrictive housing overall. That claim, however, is hard to measure. Officials point to a 2020 study showing that the number of people held in restrictive housing in Louisiana in 2019 was dramatically lower than it had been in 2017 — data that is self-reported by DPSC and defines “restrictive housing” only as periods of solitary confinement lasting 15 days or longer.
Additionally, in spite of an agreement with Vera, Louisiana has provided data on the use of restrictive housing in only two of eight facilities since the disciplinary matrix was implemented. These two facilities represent less than half of the population being held in state prisons. The records also only cover part of the time the matrix was in effect.
In a report following the completion of the partnership in December 2020, Vera said that Louisiana prisons made “notable progress” in reducing the use of solitary but did not provide any quantitative measures showing whether or how much it has in fact declined. (In a similar report in Washington state, Vera described the percentage decreases in use of restrictive housing, the average lengths of stay, and the demographics of people placed in segregation.)
“As a practical matter, it hasn’t changed a damn thing.”
Asked to elaborate on the claim about “progress,” a Vera spokesperson said that the reforms enacted so far provide “a path” toward reducing solitary confinement but that additional reforms are necessary to “achieve substantial and sustainable segregation reduction.” In response to a question about the finding that people are being held in segregation beyond the amount of time they’ve been sentenced to under the matrix, the spokesperson reiterated that DPSC could “continue to implement reforms.”
Some advocates have long been skeptical of Louisiana’s commitment to reform. Haller Jackson, a former attorney who was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in June 2020 after serving a five-year sentence, described the policy as “an effort at rebranding.”
The matrix was advertised as an effort to “correct a process that was rife with due process abuse and kangaroo courts,” he said. “But as a practical matter, it hasn’t changed a damn thing.”
Louisiana has been called the “prison capital of the world,” incarcerating more people per capita than any other state in a country that imprisons more of its citizens than anywhere else in the world. Its flagship facility is the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary — a former slave plantation better known as “Angola” in reference to its ancestral farmhands’ homeland.
Inside the walls of these prisons, “egregious and extensive” rates of solitary confinement for arbitrary and inconsistent reasons led to local and national calls for reform in the early 2010s.
In 2017, DPSC partnered with Vera to “develop a bold vision” for reducing solitary confinement. The organization found that between 2015 and 2016, solitary was almost four times as common in Louisiana as the national average, often used for “indeterminate and prolonged periods of time,” with conditions that were “often harmful to the health and safety” of prisoners and disciplinary processes that were “vaguely defined” and “inconsistently enforced.” The collaboration was supported by a $2.2 million grant from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to support Vera’s prison reform efforts in 10 states, including Louisiana.
The partnership aimed to “reduce the use of segregation by 25 percent, eliminate its use for specific vulnerable populations, reduce the length of time people spend in segregation, improve conditions in these units, and address any racial and ethnic disparities in the system’s use of segregation.”
That effort culminated in the matrix, a dense, 29-page document that enumerates 30 categories of charges that can result in placement in “disciplinary segregation” or other consequences, such as loss of visitation, wages, days off, and forfeiture of “good time.” (Good time, a form of “meritorious credit” that accrues to incarcerated individuals who avoid behavioral sanctions, can lead to reduced sentences and early release.)
Smith, of DPSC, said that the previous system led to vastly different punishment outcomes for the same violation at different Louisiana prisons: “It was very open-ended possibilities of what could happen.”
“People had no idea why they were in solitary or how long it would be until they got out.”
Another issue, Smith said, was that “the rulebook had no upper limits on segregation, so guys could be put there indefinitely.”
Under that system, solitary could be used for “really about close to anything,” said former Vera senior program associate David Cloud, adding that the disciplinary process was “a hot mess.” (Cloud was Vera’s lead author for a 2019 report that described the collaboration.) There was also no transparency, noted Sara Sullivan, the former Vera project head: “People had no idea why they were in solitary or how long it would be until they got out.” Cloud and Sullivan no longer work at Vera.
The goal of the matrix, Sullivan said, “was to add some consistency and transparency to that process, as well as to reduce the amount of time people were spending in restrictive housing.”
But even Vera had concerns about the specifics of the matrix. In its 2019 report, it noted that the matrix “did not explicitly reserve disciplinary segregation as a last resort for only serious acts of violence and permitted months of segregation for a range of minor and nonviolent behaviors.”
Early data suggested that the new policy “may not reduce entries into segregation as significantly as intended,” Vera warned.
Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, said that the policy’s intent is laudable. “On paper, the matrix could be good,” she said, noting that in most prison systems, “we can’t parse out a rubric for why people are sent to solitary and how long they go for.”
But in practice, many of the enumerated offenses are poorly defined, subject to wide interpretation. Those include “work offenses,” such as failure to “perform their assigned tasks with reasonable speed and efficiency,” and “unsanitary practices,” defined as failing to uphold “as presentable a condition as possible under prevailing circumstances.” The final category, “general prohibited behaviors,” is a catchall that includes “any behavior not specifically enumerated herein.”
The breadth of the categories creates a lot of room for discretion — and potential for abuse — in the disciplinary process, said Brinkley-Rubinstein. “You can throw your hands up and say, ‘The matrix told me to do it.’”
In interviews, people who’ve been sentenced to disciplinary segregation under the matrix described how it has worked in practice.
Imbraguglio has a history of anxiety, depression, and ADHD, and he’s on a daily drug combination of antidepressants, sedatives, and antipsychotics. In recent months, he’s been plagued by phantom voices and visual hallucinations — symptoms that can result from prolonged solitary confinement — but says that he’s been denied treatment. “It’s mental torture, pure and simple,” said Krystal. “Dom’s pain is only scratching the surface to a much larger pile of injustice and corruption here.”
Frederick Ross, who is incarcerated at Angola, was sentenced to three days in solitary confinement in March 2020 for masturbating in his cell (officially sentenced for “sexual offenses” or “disorderly conduct,” defined as “all boisterous behavior”). But despite being “overwhelmed with the segregation,” Ross — who has depression and a history of self-harm — said that he was denied mental health care while in solitary. (In March, a federal judge found that Louisiana prison officials had violated the constitutional rights of people with disabilities, including mental illnesses, by not providing adequate health care at Angola.) Instead, he was placed alone in a “timeout tank” under video surveillance. Later, Ross said, he began to “spiral out of control,” fighting with other people. His segregation was subsequently extended to 395 days, he said.
Even after his sentence was formally finished, Ross said that his charges were “renewed” due to lack of bed space. (Angola’s general population units were over capacity throughout 2020. No 2021 data is available.) As of this writing, he’s spent over 600 consecutive days in segregation. When asked about Ross’s allegations, DPSC admitted that he was in fact kept in restrictive housing due to limited bed space.
In segregation, he was placed in a cell with soiled linens and an overflowing toilet, he said. After requesting a move, he said that prison guards placed him in a shower, sprayed him with Mace, wrestled him to the ground, nearly suffocated him by putting a knee on his neck, and dragged him by handcuffs. He was subsequently charged $16.55 for the Mace and a torn jumpsuit, appearing in court a week later with a black eye and bruises across his face.
Incarcerated people also say that under the matrix, they were sent to solitary confinement without ever being told why.
“It’s inhumane, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s a death trap,” Lewis said of the matrix.
According to Louisiana’s contract with Vera, DPSC was supposed to hand over statewide data on the use of segregation from April 2019 through September 2020 so that the organization could analyze the efficacy of the new policy. The Intercept and The Lens made multiple requests for this data; in response, Pastorick, the DPSC spokesperson, said that the department does “not have a document that has that information in it, and we do not create reports with that.”
DPSC’s failure to keep consistent records created obstacles for the Vera team. Sullivan, the former Vera project lead, said that the organization was “very challenged to get administrative data” from the department when the matrix was rolled out. “Louisiana’s data collection procedures are not really centralized — it’s mostly at the facility level, and it’s not particularly consistent between facilities. We got data from some, but not others,” she said. “It has greatly limited our ability to assess the success of the reforms.”
Ultimately, DPSC provided Vera with data from only two facilities: Angola and Raymond Laborde Correctional Center, or RLCC. The provided data covered July 2019 through December 2020 at Angola and June through November 2020 at RLCC. But the state didn’t release any prior-year data that could allow researchers to see whether things had changed at those facilities. Pastorick attributed DPSC’s failure to report the numbers to the Covid-19 pandemic, “which limited time and resources to respond.”
The Intercept and The Lens obtained those records through a public records request and found that over three-quarters of the placements in disciplinary segregation at RLCC were due to nonviolent offenses. They also show that the proportion of people in restrictive housing at that prison hardly budged during the five months captured by the records — and the number of people backlogged remained the same. Those placed in segregation typically stayed between three and five months, the records show.
The records from Angola, meanwhile, reveal that it was exceedingly common for people to be held in restrictive housing beyond the time they were sentenced to under the matrix.
Between January 2020 (when the matrix was first piloted at Angola) and October 2020, the number of people who were supposed to be held in restrictive housing based on their disciplinary sentences outlined in the matrix decreased by about 70, but the number of people held in solitary actually increased. By October, over half of the people being held in restrictive housing at Angola — nearly 200 individuals — were being held beyond their disciplinary sentences. (After this story was published, DPSC said that the number of people currently backlogged at Angola is down to 35.)
The majority of those backlogged were waiting to be moved to preventative segregation, where they would still be held in their cells for over 23 hours a day.
The numbers support the allegations made by Kermit Parker and others: Stays in solitary confinement were functionally indefinite.
Yet several incarcerated people who have sought recourse for their experiences under the matrix — and for the putative violation of their rights — said they’ve had no luck. Moran, Lewis, Ross, and others said they filed grievances and appeals that were ignored or rejected for a number of reasons (including having “failed to provide any clear and convincing evidence to substantiate your allegation of cruel and unusual punishment”) or for no clear reason at all.
Moreover, incarcerated people appointed to provide legal counsel to their peers said that they have faced retaliation for filing formal complaints through the prison’s administrative remedy procedure, or ARP. On March 15, 2021, three people — Lawrence Kelly, Ned Biagas, and Warren Holmes — were placed in solitary confinement after a highly ranked official “stormed in [to the legal aid office] wanting to know who had helped file somre [sic] ARP’s that he was holding in his hand,” Kelly wrote in an email. The legal aid office was subsequently closed entirely, Kelly said.
In its report at the end of its collaboration with DPSC, Vera wrote that the data it did receive “is in no way a reflection of segregation across the system.” The report continued: “The department can only address segregation issues if they know how they are using the practice.” The report also notes that under the matrix, “several frequent and non violent infractions can still land incarcerated people in segregation.”
Cloud, who left Vera in December 2019, said hearing that much has remained the same “makes you feel that the problems are much bigger than any bureaucratic tweaks we can make.”
“I guess I’m really not that shocked,” he added. “It’s like that stupid adage: Shit’s changed, but nothing’s changed.”
Update: December 15, 2021
This article has been updated to include comments from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections that were provided after publication.