Gretna, Louisiana -- Adorned with barbed wire, the beige walls of the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center rise up beside an earthen levy across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Three men have killed themselves behind these walls in as many months, using nooses fashioned from bed sheets and whatever else they could find.
A Deaf man named Nelson Arce, whose plans for enrolling in drug treatment were interrupted by a stay in the jail in 2016, died of a drug overdose earlier this year. Arce leaves behind two children and family members who claim that he would not have been jailed for violating probation requirements had his probation officer provided him with sign language interpreters as required by law, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the state corrections office.
The lawsuit also claims he was denied access to proper communication services while incarcerated, effectively isolating Arce from anyone who could speak his native sign language, for weeks on end.
The rash of suicides alarmed mental health experts and local watchdogs, and Arce's death has advocates calling out the lack of equal access to services for disabled people in prison. Despite concerns about the mental health of its prisoners and alleged discrimination against disabled people, the local sheriff's office no longer allows in-person visitation at the jail, which serves major suburbs of New Orleans.
Critics say changing the visitation policy could take a heavy toll on people who are already in an emotionally challenging position.
"We know that maintaining family connections is extremely important for people's mental health," said Lucius Couloute, a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, in an interview.
As of this week, friends and family can no longer visit prisoners at the jail in person, and have been instructed to use a remote videophone system commonly called "prison Skype" instead, although the service quality is not on par with Skype. Videophone calls can be made from home, but calls up to 20 minutes cost $13, and costs could climb as high as $1 per minute under the jail's contract with prison phone company Securus.
The contract, which Truthout obtained under Louisiana's open records law, includes incentives for jailers to end in-person visitation and sign up as many prisoners and their families for the expensive videophone service as possible. These incentives may also explain why Arce and other Deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners have not had access to video interpreting services that disability advocates say are required by federal law.
Profiting From Isolation
In recent years, videophone systems have been introduced at hundreds of jails and prisons across the country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Advocates for incarcerated people don't necessarily see a problem with providing video visitation as an additional, albeit expensive, option for keeping families connected. However, most county jails don't simply offer video visitation as one option; they offer it as the only option, banning in-person visits after installing videophones.
Research shows that in-person visits from friends and family members have positive effects on incarcerated people, including better mental health and lower recidivism rates. That relationships in the free world would benefit the mental health of prisoners also makes common sense, particularly in jails, where many prisoners have yet to be convicted of a crime and rates of mental health and drug use disorders are extremely high.
Video visits lack the intimacy of in-person visits, even in cases where physical contact is severely restricted -- by handcuffs or a glass partition, for example -- during in-person visits. Couloute said that the sense of separation that comes with being able to visit only over video makes it harder for prisoners to maintain support networks.
"When you aren't able to do that during what is probably the most difficult time in your life, certainly that has some detrimental effects and can negatively impact people's thought processes and mental health when they're in jail," Couloute said.
There are benefits to video visitation. At the jail in Jefferson Parish, prisoners can make video calls up to three times a day every day of the week, as long as calls are scheduled at least 24 hours in advance and, of course, paid for. If friends and family members have internet access at home, connecting over "prison Skype" cuts out travel expenses and makes it easier for children to connect with incarcerated parents without making a potentially traumatizing trip to a jail.
Rates for using videophones and other communications services in jails and prisons are extremely high compared to the free world.
Jail administrations also like video visits because they require fewer staffers to monitor conversations and reduce the chance that "contraband" will enter the facility, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office. Spokesman Jason Rivarde told Truthout that "access to inmates" is now "far better" than it was before, when visits were restricted to a daily two-hour window and conducted through a glass partition.
However, that access comes at a hefty fee. In Jefferson Parish, families are entitled to one free video visit a week, but they must travel to a special video visitation facility located a few miles from the jail to make the free call. If family members can't afford their own computer and internet access -- or the $13 price tag for a 20-minute call -- traveling to the call center once a week remains their only option.
Rates for telephone calls, video visits and other communications services in jails and prisons are extremely high compared to the free world. Couloute said such price gouging amounts to a "regressive tax" on the poor because incarcerated people tend to come from dire economic circumstances.
"This is about greed," Couloute said. "So, these sheriffs are getting into these sort[s] of lucrative contracts with these video-calling companies, and they are able to extract profits from people who are coming from some of the ... poorest families around."
Under its contract with Securus, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office receives a 67 percent commission on all collect calls between prisoners and those outside, along with generous commissions from texting and voicemail programs. Securus also agreed to pay the upfront costs of installing the videophone system, as long as the jail committed to signing up enough captive customers to recoup the costs.
The contract requires that the jail "endeavor to reach at least one remote paid Video Visitation session per inmate per month" within six months of installing the service and meet that goal by the end of the first year. There's an average of 900 prisoners in the jail on any given day, so if paid video visits average less than 900 per month, then Securus can take a cut out of the jail's commission or renegotiate the contract altogether.
"Mind Boggling and Downright Unjust"
Scott Huffman, an activist with HEARD [Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf], a group that advocates for Deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners, was not happy when he learned about the videophone customer quota. When Truthout first interviewed Huffman in early 2016, he had been working for months to convince the Jefferson Parish Jail to install Video Relay Screens, a technology that sign language speakers use instead of telephones. His efforts came up fruitless as jail officials focused on the Securus videophones instead.
"Jefferson Parish has to meet a minimum usage quota every month just to keep from breaching their contract with the vendor," said Huffman in an email. "Yet a free service for Deaf persons who currently have ZERO access has been placed on the back burner and responded to with excuses that have no merit."
Nelson Arce was being held at the jail at the time. Arce was Deaf and suffered from an opioid use disorder, and he was put on probation after being arrested on drug-related charges. A court ordered him to get treatment, and he signed up for a program in California that caters to Deaf patients. Corrections officers soon ordered him back to Louisiana and put him in jail.
Arce primarily communicated with American Sign Language, not English. His probation officer did not provide a sign language interpreter at their meetings, which advocates say is required by federal law. As a result, he did not understand leaving the state for treatment violated the terms of his probation, according to the federal lawsuit filed on his behalf.
Due to this violation, Arce spent three months at Jefferson Parish, where he could not communicate with jail staff, who revoked his visitation privileges and placed him in isolation when he could not understand their orders. When Arce could contact people outside the jail, he could only use an ancient, text-only teletypewriter, a technology largely considered obsolete by the Deaf community. As Truthout has reported, incarcerated people who can't hear are locked in a prison inside a prison. Unless someone else can speak sign language, many of them suffer in silence, alone.
That's why activists like Huffman are pushing for jails and prisons to install Video Relay Screens, which route a video call to a remote sign language interpreter who relays the conversation to a conventional telephone. This allows Deaf people to make phone calls to anyone, even if the person they are calling does not speak sign language.
The federal government pays for video relay calls and providers will install video relay screens at jails and prisons for free, so jailers don't have to pay a cent. However, that also means Deaf prisoners are not paying into the commission jailers receive under their prison phone contracts -- or contributing to videophone usage quotas. Huffman can't help but wonder if that's why officials at the Jefferson Parish jail refused to install free Video Relay Screens and told him that Deaf prisoners could simply use the new videophones instead.
Securus videophones can't access remote sign language interpreters like relay screens can, and it's a lack of access to interpretation services that keep defendants like Arce wrapped in the clutches of the criminal legal system in the first place.
"It's mind-boggling and downright unjust for Jefferson Parish to deliberately ignore the needs of Deaf/Deaf-Blind/Hard of Hearing Prisoners and their right to access communication to the outside world, as well as ignore the many years of education and requests from HEARD volunteers to install FREE video phones for Deaf prisoners," Huffman said.
After he was released from jail, Arce's probation officer continued to meet with him without a qualified interpreter and allegedly coerced Arce's father into doing the job at one point, even though he is not fluent in sign language, according to the legal complaint against the state. Arce continued to struggle with opioid addiction and the criminal legal system, and he died this spring.
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections asked a court to dismiss Arce's lawsuit after his death, arguing his remaining family does not have standing to carry the case forward. Litigation is ongoing.
Jails have become warehouses for poor, mentally ill and disabled people, particularly at a time when public safety nets are collapsing.
Arce's death fits into a disturbing national trend. When the lives of people suffering from opioid disorders are thrown in jail, their chance of experiencing a fatal overdose upon release goes through the roof. As Truthout has reported, the jailing of drug users is exacerbating a nationwide crisis of fatal opioid overdoses.
Advocates say the rates of suicide in jails have also reached crisis levels. Suicide is the most common cause of death in jails nationwide, and rates of suicide in jails are more than two times higher than in federal and state prisons. Most suicides occur shortly after admission, with 26 percent occurring within the first three days of incarceration.
On August 4, deputies found 50-year-old Jerome Bell dead and hanging from a makeshift noose in his one-person cell at the jail in Jefferson Parish, according to local reports. Bell had recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and officials said he showed no signs of mental health problems. Family members said he knew he would only be locked up for a few months at most.
About two weeks later, deputies found another prisoner, Joshua Belcher, hanging from a bed sheet in his one-person cell. At the time of his death, Belcher was awaiting extradition to Florida to face assault charges but had not been convicted of a crime. Family members said the charges may have been thrown out if he'd had his day in court.
The third suicide at the jail got most of the media attention: Jatory Evans hanged himself in September after facing high-profile charges for allegedly killing his pregnant girlfriend and her parents.
Rivarde did not say what the Jefferson Parish Sherriff's Office was doing specifically to prevent more suicides, but stated that officials are "always looking" at ways to update their standards and protocols to ensure the safety and well-being of prisoners. He also said that, while in-person visits with friends and family have been replaced with video calls, prisoner are still allowed to meet with attorneys, clergy and medical professionals in person.
In theory, jails are supposed to house defendants deemed to be a flight risk or a threat to public safety as they are awaiting trial. However, in the South and across the country, jails have become warehouses for poor, mentally ill and disabled people, particularly at a time when public safety nets are collapsing. Isolation can make these people even more vulnerable to depression and addiction, especially if they face barriers to communicating and asserting their rights. Prisoners can survive this experience, but as we are learning in Louisiana, sometimes they don't.