NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than 700 Louisiana state prison inmates who responded to a questionnaire said they'd been placed in solitary confinement, in some cases for years, with many complaining of poor food and health care, small and filthy rooms and overall conditions that drove some to self-harm and suicide attempts, criminal justice advocates said Tuesday.
State officials pushed back Tuesday evening with a statement disputing some of the inmates' claims — saying inmates are let out of their cells during the day and are provided with medical care. And they said they are making progress in reducing the use of what corrections officials call restrictive housing.
Loyola University's Jesuit Social Research Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and the organization Solitary Watch released the report at a news conference Tuesday, where they issued recommendations calling for "immediate limits" on the use of solitary confinement.
The report comes weeks after another research and policy group, the Vera Institute of Justice, said the state relies too much on solitary confinement. Vera researchers noted when their report was released — and in comments during Tuesday's news conference — that the state has been taking measures to reduce solitary housing and appears committed to reform.
Tuesday evening's emailed statement from Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said the state's latest figures show 1,184 inmates are in restrictive housing — about 3.75% of the inmate population. That is lower than percentages from recent years cited in Tuesday's report. The statement said restrictive housing beds in the state system have been reduced by more than a thousand during two years of work with the Vera Institute.
Among those taking part in Tuesday's news conference was former inmate Albert Woodfox, one of three prisoners who became known as the "Angola Three" for their decades-long stays in isolation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and in other state prisons. He described over 44 years in solitary, likening it to torture and saying he still suffers from claustrophobia and disorientation as a result. He was released in February 2016 on his 69th birthday.
Other former prisoners read dramatic excerpts from the responses of prisoners who returned the survey questions.
"I do believe that solitary confinement has affected me in a way that God can't fix," wrote one prisoner.
"I have personally witnessed one man take his life," another prisoner wrote. "Another tried to by running the length of the tier and smashing his head into the front bars, sadly for him he still lives, if you can really call it that . Point is the cells are killing men and they know it."
According to the report, 2,902 surveys were mailed to inmates in isolation units at state prisons. The names of the prisoners were obtained through a public records request to the state Department of Corrections.
Completed surveys came back from 709 inmates, most of them in solitary when they filled out the surveys, the report said. The report acknowledges that the results aren't comprehensive or a representative sampling. But, the report said, the information "complements, builds upon, and adds an even greater sense of urgency" to calls for reform.
The department's response said many of the inmates' assertions "are vague and simply not true." And it dismissed the report as "propaganda based on a non-scientific survey."
Woodfox, author of a recent book entitled "Solitary, My Story of Transformation and Hope," was released after pleading no contest to a manslaughter charge in the 1972 death of a prison guard.
He has always maintained his innocence in the slaying and was awaiting a third trial after earlier convictions were overturned. He said at the time of his release that he agreed to the plea deal because he was aging and facing health concerns.