On the night of 12 November 2022 Jamal Harris, 23, who was being held in solitary segregation at Elayn Hunt correctional facility in St Gabriel, Louisiana, died by suicide after fellow prisoners and Harris’s mother claim he was consistently denied his psychiatric medication and requests for medical emergency help.
“The prison guards weren’t even making rounds like they were supposed to,” said a prisoner who requested to remain anonymous. “He wasn’t stable and they knew that because they weren’t giving him any of his medication. They were supposed to put him on suicide watch.”
Jovon Harris, Jamal’s mother, said her son had been pleading for mental help all day, but received no assistance or treatment.
Harris’s tragic death has cast a harsh spotlight on Louisiana’s usage of solitary confinement within its prisons, which has been repeatedly criticized by prisoners’ rights advocates.
In 2017, the Louisiana department of corrections reported 19% of the men within its state prisons had been in solitary confinement for at least two weeks, with many prisoners spending months or years in solitary, rates more than double the next highest state’s rates, and four times the national average.
In a 2019 report, the non-profit watchdog organization Solitary Watch dubbed Louisiana the solitary confinement capital of the world. The state passed a bill in June 2022 to limit the use of solitary confinement for youth to up to three stints of eight hours in a row, for a maximum of 24 hours.
Another prisoner who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation explained they had spent numerous days in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day or more, with some time permitted for showers or phone calls, but no access to rehabilitative or recreational facilities.
Meals are provided through an open slot in the cell doors. They claimed no cleaning materials are passed out, at most a broom is provided sometimes. There are no towels provided when showering and they use their dirty jumpsuit as a towel when clean jumpsuits are provided. In the segregation unit, most personal property is taken away from the prisoners.
“The temperature has been dropping to 50, 40 and 30F in the first and second week of November. Some windows are broken on the tier with holes in them or they cannot close and the cold air comes inside and fills the cells and there is a freeze,” the prisoner said.
When it’s cold, they say there is no heat in the prison. During the summer and warmer months, there is no air conditioning. Complaints from prisoners, ranging from basic necessities to healthcare treatment, are ignored and cause conflict with prison guards, they said, because of the lack of resources.
“This degenerates further into guards treating these matters as symptoms of disobedience rather than symptoms of mental illness or human needs unmet. Almost every day some inmate has been maced with pepper spray for these reasons. It makes me cough and choke and struggle to breathe during the day and in the middle of the night while sleeping,” they added.
The prisoner argued these conditions and the lack of medical attention to Jamal Harris contributed to his suicide.
“Prior to Jamal Harris’s death, he made repeated requests for a mental health emergency but to no avail,” said the prisoner.
Harris’s death is not an isolated controversy. In June 2022, an officer at the Elayn Hunt facility was arrested for falsifying records regarding the prison’s response to another suicide.
Jovon Harris said her son had relocated to Elayn Hunt correctional facility because it was closer to her to be able to visit more often. She explained her son didn’t have any problems before being transferred to Elayn Hunt, where officials stopped providing him with his medication, which included psychiatric medicine and asthma medication. He had earned good time to reduce his sentence, had obtained a high school diploma, a welder’s certificate and was taking college courses to get prepared to start a new life when he was released.
“They wouldn’t give him his meds. He said, ‘I can’t breathe, I need my meds. I have asthma. It’s in my medical report,’ and they threw him in solitary because they say he was being disobedient to the guards,” she said.
She said she had been requesting her son’s property, and a month after his death she still had not received anything or any information on an autopsy. “They failed my child. Elayn Hunt failed my son. They handle them worse than animals, like they’re not even human beings,” added Harris. “These people took my baby away from me.”
Emily Etienne Robertson, whose son Clifford Etienne, a former professional boxer who is imprisoned at Elayn Hunt correctional facility, claimed her son has been refused medication he needs to prevent seizures and vertigo for brain trauma he experienced from his boxing career.
“They’ve only given him his medicine five days this year,” said Robertson. “He has said to me several times, ‘Mama, they are trying to kill or make me commit suicide,’ because without these medicines he’s prone to seizures. They don’t make rounds like they’re supposed to, so there are times if he had a seizure he could be on the floor for hours.”
The Louisiana department of corrections denied the use of solitary confinement, which it has referred to as “restrictive housing”. The department has also denied claims of medications being withheld.
“The death of Jamal Harris is currently under investigation. As such, we are unable to comment.
“We are also unable to provide any inmate’s medical information as this would violate HIPAA,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Medications are dispensed on physician orders and are never withheld for any reason, including disciplinary reasons. The department provides the standard of care of treatment for seizure disorders, this would include medications when needed and monitoring of laboratory values when appropriate.”
They also claimed each facility is equipped with heaters and fans, with early phases of plans to air-condition the entire prison system.
“All of the DOC’s prisons are cleaned daily, including Elayn Hunt correctional center. The menu cycles at the state’s prisons are approved by a registered dietician and meet the national recommended dietary allowances for basic nutrition for appropriate food groups,” added the spokesperson.
Leave a Reply