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Protest at Your Own Peril: New Report Details Baton Rouge Police Mistreatment of Locked Up Alton Sterling Protesters

Photo by katesheets | CC BY 2.0

Participating in a civil rights march in 2016 shouldn’t result in being jailed in inhumane conditions, denied medical care, and deliberately humiliated.  But that is exactly what happened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last July and it bears an uncanny resemblance to the treatment of those fighting for civil rights over half a century ago.

A year ago today, thousands of people protested the police murder of Alton Sterling, a local Black entrepreneur and father, in Baton Rouge Louisiana.  Approximately 180 individuals were arrested and detained over the course of these protests.  Over 67% of these arrestees were Black, and nearly 90% of those arrested were charged with obstruction of a highway, a misdemeanor. Most of the protesters were booked, processed, and held at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, sometimes for days.

A new report released by the Promise of Justice Initiative details the conditions of the prison, the experiences of a dozen arrested protesters, and the governing legal standards for detention of arrestees.  Here is what we learned:

1)  Protesters were pepper-sprayed and threatened with violence in the prison.

Nearly every interview referenced prison staff violence (or the threat of violence).  One guard pepper sprayed approximately thirty men, all being held in one cell, for being too loud.  Thirty minutes later, the men were pepper sprayed again, with no reason given.  A prison guard reportedly also sprayed a group of detainees while they were singing gospel songs.  This indiscriminate use of pepper spray, which causes intense burning in the eyes and throat, affected people housed in neighboring cells and even the guards themselves.  Guards also threatened to “knock [their] asses off,” “pushed [a detainee] down,” and generally “treated [the detainees] like animals.”  The blatant use of excessive force is even more appalling given that there is not a single report of detainee violence or threats to prison security or staff.  Several guards also made clear that detainees were being punished for participating in the protest earlier that day.  When one woman rhetorically asked out loud, “How many people are going to be killed before we wake up?,” an officer responded by staring threateningly at her and responding, “As many as needed.”

2) Protesters were denied medical care in the prison.

After protesters were unnecessarily pepper sprayed, prison staff doubled down and failed to provide any medical treatment for their burning eyes and throats, despite prison policies that require medical treatment.  Prison staff also refused to provide medical care for injuries sustained during arrests, including head trauma, punctures from being tasered, and a swollen ankle.  Even in those cases where a medic was called to evaluate a detainee, the examination was perfunctory and abrupt.  Prison staff also failed to provide medical care for existing conditions, such as diabetes and gout.  The only treatment one protester with diabetes received, after hours of complaints about her spiraling blood sugar, was cookie crumbs wrapped in a napkin.  The lack of medical care for the protest detainees is consistent with an independent evaluation by Health Management Associates, which concluded that East Baton Rouge Parish Prison “would not pass standards outlined by [the National Commission on Correctional Health Care] NCCHC for healthcare within a jail setting” due to lack of training, policies, documentation, and staff.

3) Protesters were subjected to inhumane and unsanitary conditions in the prison.

Detainees were housed in unsanitary cells caked with grime and blood, coating the walls.  Prison staff didn’t provide basic supplies to detainees, such as tampons, toothbrushes, toilet paper, soap, or even running water in some cases.  Prison officials apparently adjusted the air conditioning to freezing cold temperatures when the protest arrestees arrived, while simultaneously failing to provide socks, jackets, or usable blankets without massive holes.  Prison guards initially withheld access to drinking water and then only provided four ounces for each detainee. Detainees went hungry, either because they missed mealtime or because the food provided didn’t meet basic food health standards.  In addition, none of the interviewed detainees received a free telephone call after being booked into the facility, violating the prison’s own policies.

4) Protesters were crammed into cells without space to sit or lie down overnight in prison.

The holding cells were deliberately packed to the brim, even though at least one protester reported viewing empty cells down the hall.  The cells had enough space for eight to ten people to sit, but at times contained 20-40 people for hours and even overnight.  One of the detainees was a seventeen year old minor, who was deliberately separated at the prison from her mother.  The minor spent the night terrified, housed in an adult prison, in violation of the Louisiana Children’s Code. A prison guard mocked a detainee, who identifies as female, for requesting housing with other females.  The overcrowding experienced by protesters at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison appears to be routine.  Though the prison is designed to house a maximum of 1,594 people, the online prison roster regularly shows populations exceeding 2,000.  The overcrowding at the prison threatens the safety of the guards and detainees, because of staffing per detainee ratios, and undercuts the ability of the prison to provide constitutionally adequate care to detainees.

5) Protesters were deliberately humiliated by the prison staff in group strip searches

Five of the interviewed protesters reported being forced to undergo group strip searches.  The strip searches required that protesters disrobe completely, expose their genitals, and spread their “butt cheeks” for prison guards.  Even the seventeen year old was strip-searched.  Though the prison may claim the searches were necessary to maintain a secure environment, there is also evidence that the strip-searches were intended as punishment.  At least two women were strip searched at least twice during their detention at the prison, even though they hadn’t left the facility or been in physical contact with anyone outside the prison. Many of those searched had already been in custody for hours.  A woman of color was forced to relinquish her underwire bra, while other women – all white – were allowed to keep their underwire bras.

The experiences of these protesters, sustained over several days in some cases, speaks to the unconstitutional conditions endured by tens of thousands of others who are arrested and detained in the parish prison.   East Baton Rouge Parish Prison staff – in their own words and by their own conduct – intended to punish the detainees for exercising their constitutional right to protest. The unnecessary and excessive use of force, the denial of medical treatment and basic supplies, the deliberate overcrowding and humiliation – for protesters arrested for “obstruction of highway” – served a purpose.  Prison staff violated the U.S. Constitution, Louisiana law and even their own policies, to send a message: protest at your own peril.

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Andrea Armstrong is an Associate Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law and co-author of the new report by Promise of Justice Initiative. The views and commentary expressed in this article are solely her own and draw from her research published in the report. She can be reached at: armstron@loyno.edu.

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