BATON ROUGE — A recently released report details the prison conditions faced by those punished for protesting police over the death of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African-American man who was held down and shot to death by Baton Rouge police officers.
The report, titled “Punished Protestors in Baton Rouge: Conditions in East Baton Rouge Prison” was funded by the Promise of Justice Initiative and written by Andrea Armstrong, a prison expert and associate law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, and Erica Navalance, a New Orleans attorney. The report cites unsanitary and unsafe conditions in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison as well as excessive force, unlawful punishment, unconstitutional hardship and humiliation.
The collective experience of the protestors “speaks to the unconstitutional conditions endured by tens of thousands of others who are arrested and detained in the parish prison,” according to the report.
“The Constitution requires that prisons and jails provide incarcerated people with basic necessities of life, from shelter and safety to adequate medical care and food,” Armstrong told the Louisiana Record. “More importantly, imagine your uncle or sister is incarcerated. How would you want them to be treated? Each incarcerated person is someone’s family member and as a moral matter, I believe we should treat them as such.”
The report notes “substandard conditions” and alleges that that the prison “appears to encourage or at least tolerate abusive and humiliating conduct by guards” and compares the manner in which East Baton Rouge Parish Prison treated the mostly African-American protesters of police misconduct to the inhumane treatment of civil rights protesters in the 1960s.
Armstrong said participating in a civil rights march in 2016 should not result in protesters being jailed in inhumane conditions, deliberately humiliated and denied medical care.
“We know that arrests and detentions were deliberate strategies to frustrate civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s,” Armstrong said. “To the extent that we are seeing similarities in treatment, it certainly raises the question of whether protesters are being punished for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
The report is based on a series of interviews of protesters conducted in July 2016 and July 2017, as well as prison policy manuals, prison self-reporting statistics and a roster of detainees produced by the East Baton Rouge Sherriff’s Office.
The alleged actions led to a sub-group of protesters filing a complaint on July 9 against the City of Baton Rouge, the sheriff’s department and several officers for their treatment during a peaceful, youth-led protest, which was held on July 10, 2016.
Armstrong said it was difficult to articulate whether the treatment of these protestors was worse than a person would find at other facilities.
“This is a hard question to answer because there is so little public information about how prisons and jails actually operate,” Armstrong said. “This report is particularly important because it provides a window into how East Baton Rouge Parish Prison violates the law and its own policies in the treatment of detainees.”
Sterling, who was shot several times at close range on July 5, 2016 while being held to the ground by white Baton Rouge police officers, sparked protests. In June, federal prosecutors announced that there wasn’t enough evidence to file civil rights charges against the officers. The case was handed over to the Louisiana Attorney General's Office to weigh bringing charges against the officers.