In the state of Louisiana, 786 inmates—none of whom were ever sentenced to death—died behind bars between 2015-2019 while serving out their prison sentences. Since Black people are already incarcerated at disproportionate rates, these deaths have been disproportionately among Black inmates. This information has not been publicly available until now, because no single authority in Louisiana is required to collect such data. When law professor Andrea Armstrong and her students took it upon themselves to conduct this research, they were shocked by what they found. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Armstrong about investigating the quiet horror happening inside Louisiana prisons and what can be done to stop it. Professor Armstrong joined the Loyola University New Orleans,College of Law faculty in 2010 and founded IncarcerationTransparency.org, a database that provides facility-level deaths behind bars data and analysis for Louisiana and memorializes the lives lost. She is a leading national expert on prison and jail conditions and is certified by the US Department of Justice as a Prison Rape Elimination Act auditor.
Pre-production/Studio/Post-production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars. It’s recently been reported in newspaper articles that Louisiana state has the highest death rate of incarcerated prisoners in the United States. The reason that was discovered was because professor Andrea Armstrong from Loyola University in Louisiana has put together the data and the research on that. So, joining me today to talk about what she discovered and why she discovered it, is professor Andrea Armstrong. Thanks for joining me, professor.
Andrea Armstrong: Thank you so much for the invitation. I’m excited to share the work that I’ve been doing with my students for the last two years.
Eddie Conway: Can you just start off by giving our audience an overview of this research that you’ve done and, in general, what you discovered?
Andrea Armstrong: Yeah. So, a couple of years ago… I’ve been working in the space around incarceration for almost a decade now, and I was following deaths that were happening at specific jails in Louisiana. And I went looking for a list, a list of people who had died behind bars, so I could understand whether these jails were outliers. Were they different? And, there wasn’t a list. No one had a list. And so, what I started doing with my students is we filed public records requests on 132 different facilities in the state of Louisiana. That’s eight state-managed prisons, several private facilities, federal detention facilities, as well as local jails.
And, we collected death records for the periods 2015 to 2019, so a five-year period. What we found is 786 people died behind bars during that five year period, and not one of them had been sentenced to death.
Eddie Conway: I also see that your data showed that there was a disparity between the amount of people of color in the state of Louisiana and the amount of deaths occurring in the jails and the prisons. Can you talk about that for a minute?
Andrea Armstrong: Sure. So, in Louisiana, Black people are about one third of the state population. They also tend to be concentrated around certain urban areas. But, what we know about our prison population in particular is that it is two thirds African-American. And so, African-Americans are already disproportionately impacted by incarceration relative to their share in the general population. And so, we expected, unfortunately, to find higher rates of death for African-Americans in our data, and in fact, we did. We found that they were 58% of all deaths behind bars, which is in part a function of their over incarceration in Louisiana.
Eddie Conway: How do these deaths break down? How are they being reported by the jails and the prisons? And, follow up on that with how do you actually think they are actually occurring.
Andrea Armstrong: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, the first thing and the big takeaway that I hope people think about and then ask their elected politicians about, is that there is no single authority in the state of Louisiana who collects these deaths. The prisons report in online, once a year, at a very high level. They’ll just report the number of people who died in state prisons. But, it doesn’t allow for a breakdown to understand the disparities that we just talked about in terms of race, or disparities in terms of age or gender.
This data didn’t exist before. Moreover, for all of the individual jails, they don’t have to report this information to anybody except for the coroner. So, getting this data together was a huge project that I could not have done without the 47 law students. That being said, of the 786, we found that the majority were deaths related to medical illnesses, and the leading causes in Louisiana were heart disease and cancer.
One interesting thing that we found about these medical related deaths is that only 50% of these deaths were due to a preexisting condition. Meaning that when the person entered the prison or the jail, that they had that condition already, and had already been diagnosed in the free world. But, what we found in this was really incredible, because if only 50% are diagnosed before incarceration, what that means is the other 50% were diagnosed and treated exclusively by the health care system behind bars. So, it certainly raises questions about access, service, and delivery of health care behind bars for people who are physically prevented from seeking their own health care.
Eddie Conway: As I was reading this article about you, in fact, I noticed that there are other people around the country that’s kind of interested in this same area and are starting to look at it. Are you in communications with other people and groups around the country, and can you share a little bit about what they might be doing also?
Andrea Armstrong: Well, I’m really fortunate. I work with a really strong community here in New Orleans, a community throughout Louisiana, as well as a national community of people who are concerned about what happens behind bars and conditions of incarceration. So, the only data point, or the only collector of this information nationwide, is the U.S. Department of Justice. But, they often release the data two, three years after it’s collected. And, they also don’t allow for these types of comparisons and analysis around race, the types of medical illness, et cetera.
And, so, what’s happened is that individuals across the US are trying to figure this out for themselves. In California, the UCLA COVID Behind Bars project has been collecting data about COVID-related deaths in both prisons and jails. Reuters has done a study of the 10 largest jails in every single state, looking at death rates in those particular jurisdictions. And then, what’s happened as a result of this article is that I’m now in touch with advocates in nine different states about how they can build their own database like ours so that they can look at facilities, specifically. Which facilities are hotspots? Which ones are not? What’s going wrong in the different facilities where there are high numbers of deaths?
Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, you know, in just a broad network of people across the country that’s saying like prisons and jails just need to be abolished, and that the push and the drive should be toward just abolishing them. Because reforms in some cases are used against prisoners, like building mental help jail facilities where they would house people that might have episodes of some sort, that could be used detrimentally. Why do you feel pushing for reforms is important at this point?
Andrea Armstrong: Well, I think that the long term vision is the same. I want a safe and secure society to live in, in my community. But, I also work very closely with people who are incarcerated, and I follow their lead in many of my research projects, and what I hear is also that what happens today matters. So, abolition, the way I understand it by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba are… It’s a long range vision. It takes time to get there. But, what I know is every single day, we have particularly African-Americans, but others as well, are incarcerated, and their health matters today. Their ability to return from incarceration to their families and to their communities depends on what conditions look like today.
Moreover, we have a system in place for enacting the death penalty, but what is most striking to me is that none of the people who died behind bars have actually been sentenced to death. Moreover, 14% of those deaths occurred for people who hadn’t even gone to trial yet. And so, I hear the abolition calls, but I also think that we have to pay attention to the people who are parts of our communities today.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Which is 2 million plus every day.
Andrea Armstrong: Yeah.
Eddie Conway: You know, I was one of those, so, yes. Let me take a step back a minute, though, and talk about you for a minute. You graduated from Yale Law School. You went around the world, fighting for human rights.
Andrea Armstrong: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Eddie Conway: You’re a top lawyer in your field. You could be in any law firm that you wanted to, probably. You could probably call it. Why are you in Louisiana messing with Angola, of all places?
Andrea Armstrong: Well first, I was born and raised here in New Orleans and Louisiana. This is home. And so, you know, my scholarship… I write about conditions nationally. I write about the law and the way it’s interpreted and the ways in fact it could be interpreted differently. But, for me, my scholarship, for it to matter, has to relate to the conditions as they are today. And, so, what better place to think about my ideas and thoughts than in my hometown?
I think the other part is, you know, we are a tight-knit community here in New Orleans and in Louisiana. And so, I get questions a lot from people that I know, from relatives, about, you know, what is it like behind bars or, why does my son have to live like this or, you know, why is my daughter being forced to do this. I need to have answers for those questions. And so, the work for me is about doing it in a place that is very special to me, because I grew up here and because I know both sides of the coin here.
Eddie Conway: Well, I understand so far there is, like, I guess a number I saw with 29. But, like, one third of the jails and prisons in the state is not cooperating by sharing data. And it seemed to me like in other cases, data has been blacked out or whitewashed, and so, it’s getting difficult to even get the data. What can you and your students, what can you do about that?
Andrea Armstrong: So, there’s a couple of things. First, my students and I have done this class where we collect the records every year. And I will say that each year, it gets better in terms of the sheriffs’ responses, that they are responding to it. But, I think the other part is to publish what we know, and then to talk about the obligation of jails around this state to actually be transparent and share this information not just with us, but with the general public. The bigger picture is that this isn’t even our job, right? You know, I teach law at law school. I write about these things. I started this project in part because no one else was doing it. But, ultimately, it is the government’s obligation, not mine. It is the government’s obligation to collect and analyze this information, because it’s the only way that they’re going to make sure that their facilities are safe and are honoring the individual Constitutional rights of the people who are incarcerated there.
Eddie Conway: Okay. It is the government’s responsibility and the Constitution about cruel and unusual punishment. I wonder. You as a lawyer, maybe you can help me here. You know, you have this 13th Amendment thing that says prisoners are slaves. You don’t seem to have like FEMA protection or OSHA protection or federal guideline protection for prisoners because they are slaves. You know, and I guess cruel and unusual punishment is in a separate kind of thing. How do you reconcile the slavery part with… The slavery part is part of the Constitution, and yet the government agencies are part of the government and they don’t look out for the slaves. How do you get beyond that?
Andrea Armstrong: Hmm.
Eddie Conway: Maybe my question is confusing, but I’m confused about this. I mean, if you’re a slave and the government’s not responsible for you, how do you hold the government accountable?
Andrea Armstrong: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, there’s a couple of different things. So, first, on the 13th Amendment, I’ve worked a lot on labor issues, as you know. In some facilities here in Louisiana, we still have people picking cotton by hand for 10 cents an hour.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrea Armstrong: And, so, I’ve traced the history of Angola. I’ve looked at the 13th Amendment. My interpretation, and I think the better interpretation, is that slavery is prohibited everywhere, but that involuntary servitude is allowed for people who are incarcerated. That’s how I interpret the 13th Amendment. But, even then, there is nothing in the requirement of involuntary servitude that requires the work to be without a choice, to have it not be paid, to have it be unprotected by labor laws that would govern the same work if it was conducted outside of the prison. And, it’s also unrelated to the development of individuals as they learn and grow and possibly return home for their future employment.
And, all of those different categories I mentioned are actually not a product of the 13th Amendment. They are a product of judges and statutory laws passed by state legislators and by Congress. And those things are things that we can either seek new legislation which repeals those old laws, or we could seek affirmative legislation. And so, there’s nothing stopping us from pushing for a law like they did in Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, that would require a minimum wage to be paid for people who are working behind bars. That’s not dictated by the 13th Amendment. Instead, it’s dictated by our actual choices. And if we want better choices, then that means electing people who adhere to those values.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, let’s look at one other thing, the amount of deaths in the prison system across the country and certainly, obviously, in Louisiana, is very high and yet, the protests… You know, the George Floyd kind of outrage, seems to be almost non-existent. Why is that? I mean, there’s certainly families and mothers and sisters and brothers and cousins that has been impacted by this stuff, in the hundreds. Why does it seem like there’s no protest?
Andrea Armstrong: Well, first, I do believe that lots of people didn’t know. So, when I first started publishing this data… So, I published it in little bits over the last few years. I was contacted by people in Lafayette, for example, which is an area of Louisiana, who said, we had no idea seven people had died in our jail in the last five years. They didn’t know, because sheriffs aren’t obligated to report it out, or to issue a press release, or really to notify anybody. So, the first step is simply making visible what happens behind bars. And, you know this, that behind those bars, for the rest of society, it’s almost as if that place doesn’t exist.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrea Armstrong: It’s incredibly hard to get information about what happens behind bars. So, that’s the first step. But, the second is something that I take from one of the people that I’ve worked with for a couple of years here in Louisiana. She is the mother of… Her son died in a jail. And the way she explains it is she says that, you know, we’re all so ashamed that our kid landed in the jail that we don’t shout it from the mountaintops either, and that we think that we’re alone and individual and it’s just our kid. And, that’s actually not true, and what we’re finding here in Louisiana is that the families who have lost people behind bars are getting together, and they’re talking together, and they’re finding strength in one another, so that they can also take a broader stage across the state to argue that jails need to be safe and secure places for their children.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And, I wonder too how much of it has to do with poverty and mental illness episodes, et cetera. On the charge that I was on, I had a rap buddy who died. Really, he was like 45 or something. So, he died very young. Bad heart, or at least the way they treated him created a bad heart. And, within three days, they incinerated him. His family was from New York. They didn’t have time to even get down to claim the body because of the poverty. I mean, how much of death is also a factor in these bodies just slipping past us without us even getting a sense of what’s going on?
Andrea Armstrong: I think you’re right. We know that we disproportionately incarcerate the poor in our prisons and jails. We know this. The New Orleans jail, 80% of them are represented by a public defender, meaning they don’t have the resources to hire their own lawyers. And so, we know that the people within our jails and prisons are overwhelmingly people without a lot of economic or financial power, and it stands to reason that their families are also with lesser means.
I think part of this is also about how jails talk to families. So, some families don’t even receive a notification from the jail until several days after the death. Several families that I’ve worked with, the way that they found out that their child died is because somebody else on the tier called them and told them. This is before the jail ever told them. And so, there’s a couple of different things that are happening and certainly the lack of financial resources makes it harder for families, but it shouldn’t be their burden to bear. Right?
Again, the responsibility and the obligation falls on the government, and we have a right to expect competent, efficient, and effective services from our government. These are institutions. The same way we have schools. The same way we have state hospitals. All of those have public oversight. All of them have to report on how they operate, the well being of the people in their care. And, we don’t have those same types of oversight and accountability for prisons and jails in Louisiana. And very few states have that type of oversight and accountability in place.
Eddie Conway: Yes, and it’s our taxpayers. And, now I’m a taxpayer, so it’s our money. We are paying for this treatment. Or we’re paying for this mistreatment, as it were.
Andrea Armstrong: [crosstalk]
Eddie Conway: What can other people…?
Andrea Armstrong: Didn’t mean to interrupt you.
Eddie Conway: Oh, no. Go ahead.
Andrea Armstrong: Well, I was going to say it’s not just the mistreatment that we’re paying for. It’s actually more expensive. Right?
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Andrea Armstrong: So, there’s the mistreatment, right?
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrea Armstrong: So, it’s our tax dollars that are paying for a place in which people die at significantly higher rates when we think about, in particular, suicide and drug overdoses.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrea Armstrong: But, in addition, there’s liability. Right? So, family members can sue the jail or the prison if they think that the jail or the prison was at fault for the death, and that means that the jail or prison will have to pay money as a result of that lawsuit in addition to the attorneys’ fees and in addition to the insurance premiums. All of these facilities have to carry insurance the same way I carry car insurance. And so, they have to carry insurance, too, and what we know from car insurance, if you get in a lot of wrecks, your car insurance is more expensive. And it’s the same thing with prisons and jails.
And, so, it’s not just that we’re paying for the substandard care that people might be getting. But, it actually costs us more when people die behind bars.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You know, that brings me to another point. Apparently… And, it reminds me of the lend-lease programs that they had back in the turn of last century, and it seems that the jails in Louisiana are taking in state prisoners for a daily fee. And so if you’re in a rural area and you don’t get a lot of prisoners, then you’re opening your jail to prisoners from the state so you can get that financial aid. Is that being abused?
Andrea Armstrong: Well, I’ll say Louisiana is relatively unique in this. Kentucky does it a little bit, and California has moved in this direction. But, this is the result of a 1971 lawsuit around prison conditions, and the deal that was struck was that we would have state prisons, but then half of the state prison population, so approximately 15,000 people, would be housed in local jails. And, you know this as well. Jails have fewer services. They have less robust medical and mental health care. They can sometimes be farther from the family than even the prison would be.
And, so, we have populations which are coming from Southern Louisiana in particular, so from the New Orleans area or the greater New Orleans area, from Baton Rouge, and then they’re being housed in these Northern jails, Northern Louisiana jails, and those sheriffs in those parishes will get a per diem. They’ll get… Right now, it’s about $26.39 a day per person that they house for the state. And so, this creates financial incentives as well. Financial incentives for sheriffs as they build new jails, to build them bigger than they actually need, which means more debt for the taxpayers in that particular area, just in the hopes that they can create a separate and independent revenue stream through housing people on behalf of the state.
Eddie Conway: Hmm. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrea Armstrong: [crosstalk]
Eddie Conway: So…
Andrea Armstrong: Oh, sorry.
Eddie Conway: Yes. Go ahead.
Andrea Armstrong: So, there were some reform measures that were adopted in 2017 that were designed to reduce the total number of people incarcerated. And one of the sheriffs really prominently, I believe it was on TV, said, well, they’re taking all my good inmates away. These are the ones who maintain the car, and they do electrical and plumbing, and they do all types of work for the sheriff, sometimes skilled work that the sheriff would otherwise have to pay for. And so, there are accounts of people with particular skills being sent to one facility, but then a sheriff in another area will need an electrician or a plumber. They’ll make a phone call. And so, you know, people will be traded amongst institutions based on what they can bring to the sheriff, particularly in terms of employment skills.
Eddie Conway: Hmm. Hmm. Nothing’s really changed, unfortunately. Tell me, what can other people and organizations in other states actually learn from the work that you and your students have done?
Andrea Armstrong: So, first is to ask questions. So, my students file something that’s called public records requests. Every single state has a state law that allows residents in that state to write to an agency and ask for information. And if there is information that that agency created… And, you know, there’s always exclusions.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrea Armstrong: But, you can write a letter to your Department of Corrections or your local sheriff and say, I want to know how many people have died in this jail. And, you can request those records. And so, that’s what my students do, is filing those public records requests. But, you don’t have to be a lawyer to do that.
Second, I think it’s really important that we ask questions of the leaders of these jails and prisons, and ask them for information about what conditions are like behind bars. And that means real information. So, what types of medical services are provided? What type of co-pay is required for people who are incarcerated in order to get health care? What’s visitation like at that facility? How much food is provided to people behind bars? These are all public institutions, and in some cases, the leaders of those institutions are elected officials, which means that the power of the vote is important, and it’s something that people can use in order to create change in their local communities.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So, you get a final word here. So, any final thought that you want to share with the audience?
Andrea Armstrong: I think one of the most striking things for me is looking at these deaths that we found, there were a significant number of suicides that happened in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is supposed to be the most observed place. It is supposed to be the place where guards are close by so they can make sure that no harm occurs, where medical and mental health staff are supposed to periodically make checks. And, so, you know, all of the deaths are sad because families lost someone. Our communities lost someone, a member, when they died behind bars. But, I think some of the most egregious deaths are the deaths that we saw happening in solitary confinement in Louisiana jails, primarily, not in prisons.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you for joining me, professor.
Andrea Armstrong: Thank you for having me.
Eddie Conway: This has been enlightening.
Andrea Armstrong: It’s been really enjoyable to share the research. And, last, we have a website. That’s www.incarcerationtransparency.org, where you can look at the Louisiana data, and we’ll be launching a new section in a couple of weeks which is going to focus on some of the lives of the people that we lost behind bars. Thank you so much.
Eddie Conway: Okay. We’ll put it up at the end of this video so it’ll be there for people to be able to get in touch with you. Continue to work. It’s like really, really good work.
Andrea Armstrong: Thank you so much for having me, and I’m just honored by the invitation.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And, thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.