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:
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.”
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.
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.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Protest at Your Own Peril: New Report Details Baton Rouge Police Mistreatment of Locked Up Alton Sterling Protesters’.