Even in the context of the United States’ grim and sometimes brutal prison conditions, a story released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties of Louisiana shocks the conscience. The ACLU is protesting treatment of prisoners in one parish jail, who are routinely locked in cages measuring 3 x 3 feet–one-fourth the legally mandated size for caged dogs in the same parish. What makes this story even more sickening is the fact that this treatment is used on prisoners who are suicidal.
We know that placing prisoners in cells or cages too small to lie down in was one of the forms of torture employed at Abu Ghraib and other interrogation sites since the start of the so-called war on terror. Even there, the detainees were most commonly released after a day or two. At the St. Tammany Parish Jail in Covington, Louisiana, the ACLU found, prisoners suffering from mental illness, and deemed at risk of killing themselves, are sometimes held in the tiny cages for weeks or months.
What follows is the story in full, as released by the Louisiana ACLU. The group’s open letter to St. Tammany officials can be read here. A detailed story on the case, including St. Tammany Parish’s response to past protests, appears in New Orleans City Business.
After extensive investigation into conditions at the St. Tammany Parish jail, today the ACLU of Louisiana sent a letter to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain and Parish President Kevin Davis, demanding an end to the practice of caging suicidal prisoners in “squirrel cages.” After the jail determines a prisoner is suicidal, the prisoner is stripped half-naked and placed in a 3′ x 3′ metal cage with no shoes, bed, blanket or toilet, according to numerous interviews conducted with current and former prisoners. Prisoners report they must curl up on the floor to sleep because the cages are too small to let them lie down. Guards frequently ignore repeated requests to use the bathroom, forcing some desperate people to urinate in discarded containers. The cages are in a main part of the jail, allowing other prisoners to gawk at those confined in these cages. People have been reportedly held in these cages for days, weeks, and months.
Sheriff Jack Strain has been quoted saying that prisoners “need to be caged like animals.” Tragically, Sheriff Strain treats his most vulnerable prisoners worse than the minimum legal standards for dogs. According to St. Tammany Parish Code 4-121.10, dogs must be kept in cages at least 6′ wide x 6′ feet deep, with “sufficient space [...] to lie down.” “This really should go without saying, but in America we should not treat any person worse than animals.” said Barry Gerharz, Prison Litigation Fellow at the ACLU of Louisiana.
Marjorie Esman, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director, said “This is what can happen when you have law enforcement treating the mentally ill. If the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment means anything, it means that people shouldn’t be treated like this. Jails across this country typically have housing for suicidal prisoners and don’t resort to such barbarity. The squirrel cages belong in the history books.”
Several witnesses report suicidal prisoners forced to wear orange short shorts (“Daisy Duke” style). Prisoners also report being forced to wear Daisy Duke shorts with “Hot Stuff” written on the rear end. People who have been placed in the cages describe acute physical and psychological after-effects, including clinical depression, nightmares and crying fits after they were released from jail. Prisoners report that they are hesitant to inform guards when they feel suicidal, out of fear that they will be placed in the cages. This increases the likelihood that a prisoner will commit suicide, as happened last fall.
The Sheriff is scheduled to receive millions of dollars for upgrades to the jail. In this morning’s letter to Parish President Kevin Davis and the Sheriff, the ACLU of LA demands that some of this money be used to create humane housing for people on suicide watch at the jail.
“We appreciate that mentally ill prisoners pose a challenge for the jail, but Sheriff Strain has a legal and moral obligation to care for sick people in a humane way. Caging them for prolonged periods of time is an unacceptable solution, both from a legal perspective and from a human rights perspective. We hope that the sheriff will use this opportunity to build a more humane facility, so that we can avoid litigating this issue,” said Katie Schwartzmann, legal director for the ACLU.