DOJ: Louisiana routinely jails people past their court-ordered release dates
The Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed last month that Louisiana has been routinely detaining inmates long past their court-ordered release dates for more than a decade, violating the U.S. Constitution.
“The Constitution guarantees that people incarcerated in jails and prisons may not be detained beyond their release dates, and it is the fundamental duty of the State to ensure that all people in its custody are released on time,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Our investigation uncovered evidence of systemic violations by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections that have resulted in the routine confinement of people far beyond the dates when they are legally entitled to be released. We are committed to taking action that will ensure that the civil rights of people held in Louisiana’s jails and prisons are protected. We stand ready to work with state officials to institute long overdue reforms.”
During a four month period last year, 26.8% (1,108 of 4,135) of people released from the custody of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDOC) were held past their release dates. Of these, 31% were held over for at least 60 days and a quarter were detained for more than 90 days past their release date.
Overdetention isn’t just illegal and morally reprehensible—it also costs the state a ton of money. During the same four month period, according to the DOJ, overdetention cost taxpayers a minimum of $850,000. That adds up to at least $2.5 million a year.
The problem is caused by systematic incompetence from LDOC officials, including inefficient methods for calculating release dates, a lack of a uniform system for receiving sentencing documents, and the use of antiquated data management systems.
LDOC does not have a uniform system for receiving necessary sentencing documents from the Clerks of Court and Sheriff’s offices. Nor does it establish a standard timeline for the delivery of those documents. LDOC maintains a time-consuming process for calculating release dates, which includes both manual calculations and automated processes using an antiquated data management system. And it lacks a standardized training or accountability process to ensure its staff have the ability to make sentencing computations accurately
The state has been aware of these deficiencies for more than ten years, but is “deliberately indifferent to the systemic overdetention of people in its custody.”
LDOC has known since 2012 that developing a system with the functionality to receive preclass packets electronically would dramatically improve the timely delivery of preclass packets to LDOC. Still, LDOC has never taken steps to implement such a system. In fact, when the Clerks of Court Association offered to begin electronically submitting sentencing documents to LDOC in 2016, LDOC refused, claiming that it would create more work for his department…
LDOC is deliberately indifferent in its failure to implement adequate policies and adequately train its employees in order to prevent systemic overdetentions. Our investigation uncovered a decade long pattern of violations dating back to at least 2012, when Secretary LeBlanc initiated a project to audit the Preclass time computation process in partnership with Lean Six Sigma. The Lean Six Sigma audit found that it took, on average, 110 days from the date of an individual’s conviction for LDOC staff to process and complete a person’s time computation. This led to a backlog of over 1,400 cases that were awaiting a time computation, 83 percent of which were for people being overdetained…
At least 15 private lawsuits filed against LDOC in recent years regarding overdetention have also provided notice of systemic overdetention. Many of these lawsuits not only alleged that the individual plaintiffs have been overdetained—in one instance for as many as 164 days— but also alleged an ongoing pattern of overdetentions. 49 While some LDOC officials have successfully had claims against them in their individual capacities dismissed on qualified immunity grounds, 50 not one court opinion has undermined the basic factual assertion that a pattern of unconstitutional overdetention in Louisiana has persisted for years.
One of these lawsuits was recently heard by a three-judge panel made up of two Trump judges, Kyle Duncan and James Ho, and an Obama Judge, James Graves. “[T]he Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections,” the three judges wrote, “has identified and exposed a pattern of Louisiana inmates being detained past the expiration of their sentences.” Yet they dismissed the suit brought by a man detained past his release date, explaining that his brief was not good enough.
The right to timely release is clearly established. But Taylor failed to adequately brief—and has thus forfeited—any meritorious argument that Secretary LeBlanc’s behavior was objectively unreasonable in light of that Right… Taylor’s entire presentation on the issue of objective unreasonableness amounts to just this single conclusory statement: ‘It is inherently unreasonable for the secretary…to fail to enact policies and procedures to ensure the prompt release of inmates who have served their sentences in accordance to law.’ A single, unsupported sentence isn’t enough to adequately brief the issue.
Alabama jail murder
Officials at an Alabama jail tortured and killed a mentally ill man by locking him in a freezer, according to a lawsuit filed by his surviving family.
Steve Mitchell initiated police contact after his cousin, Anthony “Tony” Mitchell, 33 years old, showed up at his house in a drug-induced delusional state. Tony told Steve that he believed there were portals to heaven and hell in his house, asking his cousin for help entering the portal to heaven to save his still-born baby brother. Steve called 911 for assistance:
Steve and Jacob [Steve’s son] left Tony at the house, promising to return and help Tony find the portal. Steve, not knowing how else to get help for his cousin, attempted to contact the Walker County Sheriff’s Department. When he couldn’t reach anyone at the Sheriff’s Department, Steve eventually decided he had no choice but to call 911.
Steve asked the 911 dispatcher if they could send someone to go check on his cousin. He told the dispatcher that Tony was talking out of his head about portals to heaven and hell, and that he appeared to be having a mental breakdown and that he was in an extremely degraded condition. The dispatcher asked if an ambulance was needed, and Steve told her that would be a good idea.
When Walker County Sheriff’s officers arrived, Tony allegedly brandished a gun, fired at officers, and ran into the woods behind his house. They arrested Tony and posted pictures of the encounter on Facebook, Tony’s face spray painted black so he could enter the portal in his attic. Public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, T.J. Armstrong, spoke to Steve at length and was well aware of Tony’s urgent medical needs, assuring the cousin “that Tony would receive medical evaluation and treatment in jail.”
While in pretrial defense, Tony was held naked in an isolation cell in the booking area—a cell not intended for housing detainees. Video obtained by his estate shows officers tazing Tony on at least one occasion.
We do not know exactly what happened to Tony during the 15 days he was held at Walker County Jail. We do know that on January 26th, 2023, his limp body was carried by officers to an SUV and transported to the hospital without any medical personnel and without any apparent urgency. Upon arrival at the hospital, ER doctors found that Tony was barely alive and his body was cool to the touch. Doctors tried unsuccessfully for three hours to resuscitate him. Alarmingly, Tony’s internal body temperature was just 73 degrees fahrenheit.
“Patient was unresponsive but occasionally made some agonal movements including swallowing and minor movements of an arm or leg.” …the doctor’s notes state, “I am not sure what circumstances the patient was held in incarceration but it is difficult to understand a rectal temperature of 72° F 22° centigrade while someone is incarcerated in jail. The cause of his hypothermia is not clear. It is possible he had a underlying medical condition resulting in hypothermia. I do not know if he could have been exposed to a cold environment. I do believe that hypothermia was the ultimate cause of his death.”
Tony’s family’s lawyers theorize that he was “exposed to frigid temperatures for an extended time”:
The only way for a living person’s body temperature to fall to near room temperature, and for the person to still be marginally alive as indicated in the medical records, and not a corpse that has cooled to match the temperature of its surroundings, is for that person to have been exposed to frigid temperatures for an extended time.
Based on these circumstances, it appears that Tony was strapped into a restraint chair during the night of January 25 to January 26 and placed in the jail kitchen’s walk-in freezer or similar frigid environment for an extended time, possibly as punishment for deputies who had “had a time with Tony,” or as punishment for allegedly shooting at deputies.
Security footage that would reveal what happened to Tony has not been released to the family. In fact, the only reason his family obtained limited video of Tony’s final moments was a “heroic” corrections officer who “dared to preserve security camera footage on her phone.” That video evidence shows that officers did not attempt to help Tony for at least five hours, instead leaving him lying on the floor of his cell, stopping by only to laugh at him and clean “around Tony as he lies dying on the floor.”
The Sheriff’s office attempted to cover up the cause of Tony’s death and their deliberate indifference to his medical distress:
While no videos have been released proving that Mitchell was placed in a freezer, Walker Country police have made multiple false statements about the incident. Soon after Mitchell’s hospitalization, police claimed in a press release that “the inmate was alert and conscious when he left the facility and arrived at the hospital.” However, surveillance video from inside the jail shows an unconscious and limp Mitchell being carried into the loading area of the jail. The lawsuit also alleges that one officer told Mitchell’s cousin “that when deputies got Tony to the hospital, the doctor had asked Tony to sit up, and Tony had sat up, and that at this point, he had a massive heart attack.” However, the doctor’s notes indicate that Mitchell arrived unresponsive and that “there was never any purposeful movement or response to pain.”