Blog of Rights

Louisiana Jail Holds Suicidal Prisoners in "Squirrel Cages"

By Suzanne Ito, ACLU at 2:06pm

Mentally ill prisoners deserve more care and consideration while incarcerated, but time and again, the ACLU often finds the exact opposite: they're treated even worse than the general population. Today, the ACLU of Louisiana sent a letter to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain and Parish President Kevin Davis asking them — horrifyingly enough — to stop treating suicidal prisoners like animals.

St. Tammany Parish officials have a policy of locking suicidal prisoners in 3-by 3-foot metal cages that prison staff call "squirrel cages." After prisoners are deemed suicidal, they're stripped half-naked and put in the cages without a bed, blanket, shoes or toilet. Requests to use the bathroom are often ignored by guards, so prisoners urinate in milk cartons, or soil themselves inside the cage. Some prisoners reported being forced to wear bright orange, Daisy Duke-style shorts with the words "HOT STUFF" scrawled across the backside.

To add insult to injury, the cages are placed in the main part of the jail, so the caged prisoners are a spectacle for other prisoners to gawk at.

The ACLU of Louisiana's letter (PDF) points out:

These conditions are clearly unconstitutional. According to the St. Tammany Parish Code they are also inhumane. St. Tammany Parish Code 4-121.10 states that dogs must be kept in cages at least 6' wide x 6' feet deep, with "sufficient space [. . .] to lie down." Sick prisoners in your care are afforded approximately one quarter of the space required for animals under the Parish Code.

So despite Sheriff Strain's previous assertion that prisoners "need to be caged like animals," in Tammany Parish, suicidal prisoners aren't even afforded the rights of a dog.

Tammany Jail is set to receive $2 million to upgrade its facilities after a prisoner escaped earlier this year. The ACLU urges the sheriff to put some of that money toward more humane treatment of mentally ill and suicidal prisoners. The letter concludes: "St. Tammany is one of the wealthiest parishes in Louisiana; not only can you afford to treat your sick better than this, but the Constitution mandates that you do so."

Statistics image