East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Project

Click to watch the video:

* Within one minute of the YouTube video posting a $50 donation was made. As a community we can make the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison take accountability for the safety and mental health of all citizens. 


Following the killing of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge Police officers in July 2016, many people gathered in Baton Rouge to peacefully protest. Many protesters were arrested and detained at the East Baton Rouge Parish prison. The accounts of their detainment presents a disturbing window in to the conditions of the East Baton Rouge Parish prison. The Promise of Justice Initiative and esteemed Loyola Professor of Law, Andrea Armstrong, authored a report: Punished Protestors: Conditions in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

The investigation made clear that not only are the conditions of confinement in the jail inhumane--including denial of basic sanitation and medical care, physical violence, and disregard of due process--but that there is also a level of cruel intentionality to the treatment of detained citizens. In addition to basing the report on more than a dozen interviews of arrested protestors, the report relies on the Health Management Associates’ presentation of their study on the medical practices at the jail, prison policy manuals, and local and national statistics.

Erica Navalance, staff attorney at the Promise of Justice Initiative and principle author of the report, notes:

“The two most disturbing aspects of our investigation were
1) That those detained for minor infractions were forced to endure threats of brutal force and humiliation; and

2) That it might actually be worse for those regularly arrested in East Baton Rouge on minor offenses, unable to make bond, when the whole world is not watching.”

After the release of this report, and while researching a forthcoming report documenting the deaths that have occurred in the jail from 2012 to 2016, the Promise of Justice Initiative has continued to use other tools to expose and reform the conditions inside of the jail. 

The Promise of Justice Initiative also hosts community meetings to discuss the conditions of the jail and launch a community coalition. Individuals share the stories of either their own inhumane confinement, or stories of loved ones who tragically died while in the jail’s custody. You can read more about the meeting in the press release here or the local newspapers coverage of it here.

Since publishing the report and hosting community coalitions, PJI has partnered with The Fair Fight Initiative to combat the inhumane conditions at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. This partnership, along with our stakeholders, allows PJI to provide the best representation against some of the most unacceptable prison conditions we have witnessed.

The Fair Fight Initiative (FFI) is a non-profit corporation* founded by lawyers with deep roots in civil rights and social justice advocacy. FFI's vision is to expose and eliminate brutal jail and prison conditions, violent and even deadly police brutality, and prosecutorial misconduct. FFI's mission is to represent individuals and families who bring claims that other lawyers refuse to accept because they are too risky or too expensive to litigate, to seek justice through the law and other advocacy, and to level the legal playing field. The current system rewards lawyers and law firms who defend unconscionable law enforcement conduct through a financial rewards system that promotes filing endless motions, fighting routine discovery requests, and engaging in needless litigation because the firms are paid by the hour - often by insurance companies. With public support, FFI will accept and prosecute cases regardless of cost and risk, expose mistreatment by law enforcement, work with communities to reduce the criminalization of Black and Brown people, reduce unnecessary detention and incarceration, and hold law enforcement accountable. 

PJI has been working with the lawyers from FFI to uplift the stories of their clients. PJI and FFI coordinated a press conference when Jonathan Fano's family filed a Federal Lawsuit for the widespread neglect and illegal treatment of mentally ill people incarcerated in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. PJI and FFI continue to collaborate by supporting the creation of a community coalition working on reforming the jail. 


Funds donated to the Promise of Justice Initiative and the Fair Fight Initiative will be used to continue exposing the conditions of the jail through publishing and disseminating additional reports, producing additional videos about the conditions, suing on behalf of individuals who have wrongfully died in the jail, and supporting the creation of the community coalition. All contributions will be split equally between the two organizations. 

Click Here to Help Support the East Baton Rouge Prison Project!


*The Fair Fight Initiative's 501(c)(3) status is pending.

Client and Family Assistance Program

The Client and Family Assistance Project focuses on reducing the hardships that families of prisoners face. The project also works to reduce unnecessary physical suffering and increase opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption. Incarceration and the threat of execution take a huge toll on the families of condemned inmates.

The PJI Client, their Family, and the Community

PJI clients frequently come from families without resources to maintain contact with loved ones. The cost of having a family member in prison is extremely high, both financially and emotionally.

  1. Keeping in Touch
    • Prisoners are only allowed to make collect calls. These collect calls home are immensely expensive, and some families simply cannot afford phone calls with their loved ones.

    • The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola for the home country of slaves who worked the land when it was a plantation, is a three-hour drive from New Orleans and many miles away from most major cities in Louisiana. Our clients’ families often do not have the ability to make the trip to Angola. Many prisoners have gone years without seeing any family members or loved ones.

  2. Hope and the Pursuit of Innocence
    • Without basic human interaction, all people deteriorate, physically and emotionally. Prisoners who are fighting wrongful convictions often lose hope without the support of their loved ones.
    • Visits improve the behavior of prisoners.

  3. Family and Community
    • A lack of meaningful connection between prisoners and their loved ones can also traumatize children of prisoners and their families. The emotional trauma that accompanies having a family member imprisoned can lead to further strife and violence in the community.

  4. Basic Human Necessities
    • The Louisiana prison system often does not take into account the basic fundamental needs of its prisoners. Some prisoners face intense isolation, unnecessary physical suffering, and unattended medical needs.

How the Client and Family Assistance Project Helps

  1. Keeping Families Communicating:
    • PJI works to help families keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, by defraying costs of collect calls and aiding families in letter-writing.
    • PJI provides transportation for biannual family visits to Angola.

  2. Creating Healthy Minds and Healthy Communities
    • We help families maintain their connections. This work reduces prison violence, boosts the morale of condemned prisoners, and alleviates the void created by a missing family member.
    • PJI also partners with local community organizations to counsel families of prisoners, supporting them in improving coping strategies and reducing grief. Creating a safe place for families reduces acting-out in our communities and helps the families of those incarcerated live more positive, fulfilled lives.

  3. Providing the Basics
    • People have a right to the basic necessities of life. PJI helps prisoners receive medical care when the prison system will not care for them. The project also provides simple necessities, such as reading glasses and educational materials.

The Client and Family Assistance Project is largely supported through ongoing, small-scale grassroots fundraising activities and individual donations. Our project coordinator position is staffed through a low-cost partnership with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.


Policy Reform Project

The Policy Reform Project pursues justice at the policy level. Louisiana’s high rate of incarceration is directly tied to poverty and inequality. Only with deliberate, long-term, strategic efforts can we as a community overcome these high imprisonment rates and begin to create a healthier Louisiana.

The Prison System in Louisiana

Louisiana locks up more citizens per capita than any other state. In the 1990s, the privatization of the prison system resulted in incentives to lock up more people for longer periods of time. The same private interests influence state criminal justice policies.

How We Affect Policy

Litigation, community organizing, and policy reform go hand in hand. PJI works closely with grassroots community efforts and policy reform organizations around Louisiana to identify common priorities, develop informed ideas about legislation, and bring these ideas to state lawmakers. Our staff attends hearings, offers testimony, and develops research to drive policy changes. We strongly defend against regressive proposals, which often increase over-incarceration and fail to improve public safety.


The Promise of Justice Initiative strives to achieve non-violent and effective alternatives to Louisiana’s death penalty. Together we work to educate citizens about:

  • Racial and religious discrimination in jury selection
  • Racial and geographic discrimination in first-degree murder charging decisions
  • The overwhelmingly high cost of pursuing capital convictions

PJI also seeks abolition by joining with community and grassroots organizations to advocate for improved protection of public safety, smarter and more effective uses of resources, and restorative justice for families and communities affected by murder. Our work is supported through donations from lawyers, clergy, individuals and foundations opposed to capital punishment.


Light of Justice Project

John Adams said: “It is the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind.”  But in Louisiana, a defendant can be sentenced to life in prison without parole based upon a non-unanimous 10-2 verdict.  Louisiana's majority verdict system was first introduced in the State's 1898 Constitution, as part of a series of measures specifically designed to "establish the supremacy of the white race."  As Thomas Aiello wrote in Jim Crow’s Last Stand: Non-unanimous Jury Verdicts in Louisiana, “It was a law designed to increase convictions to feed the state’s burgeoning convict lease system and remained in the first half of the segregationist twentieth century even after convict lease had run its course. … It is the last active law of racist Redeemer politics in Louisiana.”

Louisiana leads the nation, and the world, in incarceration.  Per capita, it leads the country in wrongful convictions and exonerations.  While non-unanimous juries may not be the sole cause, the Promise of Justice Initiative believes that the lack of unanimity undermines confidence in the administration of justice.  We believe that the 10-2 verdict is a lasting monument to – as well as a daily resurrection of – the time when the State had no interest in preserving and protecting the rights of African-American citizens.   


Presently before the U.S. Supreme Court

David Wayne Sims v. Louisiana, 17-7002

Amicus Curiae Brief has been filed by Criminal Justice Reform Clinic


The Advocate: In Louisiana's Split-Verdict Rule, White Supremacist Roots Maintain Links to Racist Past.

The fix was in against black Louisianan's when 134 delegates gathered at Tulane Hall in New Orleans in February 1898 to draft a new state constitution. 

Their marching orders: whitewash the voter rolls as thoroughly as possible- without running afoul of federal low. 


The Advocate: Our Views: It's Time for Louisiana to Leave Nonunanimous Verdicts Behind.


Louisiana's state Senate has done the right thing in passing a bill giving voters the chance to improve the way juries decide felony cases. We urge the House to follow suit. 


Washington Post: These jury systems are vestiges of white supremacy

Louisiana and Oregon are not often thought of in the same vein. But on the issue of non-unanimous juries, they are kindred spirits.

In these two states, the prosecutor needs to persuade only 10 of 12 jurorsfor a felony conviction that does not involve the death penalty. All other states require unanimous jury decisions in felony cases — as does the federal system, including federal courts in Louisiana and Oregon.

These jury systems are largely unnoticed vestiges of white supremacy and oppression in our legal system. The Supreme Court now has the chance to accept a case that could end the use of non-unanimous juries in criminal cases. It should take this chance.


The Advocate: It's time to end our discriminatory jury rule in Louisiana


US News & World Report: A look at the killing that gave Oregon its 10-2 jury system


The Oregonian: Dirty Secret of Oregon Jury System Could Go Before U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court next week will decide whether to accept a case that could test Oregon's unusual jury system, targeted by criminal justice reform advocates as deeply flawed and racist.

The Oregonian: Editorial: Justice Requires a tougher standard than 'guilty enough:'

Jury unanimity isn't the law in Oregon and Louisiana. The two outlier states require that only 10 of 12 jurors agree to a guilty verdict for defendants facing most state felony charges, including manslaughter, arson and rape. That watered-down standard, which enables the majority to disregard the concerns of holdout jurors, reflects the racist and xenophobic mentality that thrived at the time of their passage decades ago.

 Mail Tribune: Addressing Oregon's Legacy of Injustice:

Oregon’s sordid history of racial and ethnic discrimination is well known. Here in the Rogue Valley, a photo of the Ku Klux Klan parading through Ashland in the 1920s has been reprinted over and over when the issue of race relations comes up. What is less well known is that the state’s criminal justice system still contains a relic of that intolerance. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to take up a challenge to that relic.

…. On Sept. 25, the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether to take up the case of Dale Lambert of Louisiana, who is serving a life sentence without parole for second-degree murder although two of the 12 jurors in his trial were not convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The court should take the case, and erase once and for all this legacy of injustice.

The New Orleans Times Picayune: Should juries be unanimous? Treme murder case raises question for U.S. Supreme Court

What authorities described as a mistaken retaliatory murder committed four years ago in Treme could provide the unlikely impetus to end non-unanimous jury verdicts in the United States, supporters of criminal justice reform hope.

The Bend Bulletin: U.S. Supreme Court may review non-unanimous jury verdicts. Oregon one of two states to allow such convictions.

Oregon has a long history of racism and xenophobia dating back to its pre-statehood practice of excluding black residents from settling here. It later became the only state admitted to the union with an exclusionary clause in its constitution.

Some argue that contempt for minorities persists today in the form of jury verdicts that do not require unanimous approval — a practice Oregon voters approved in 1934. Advocates for jury reform, citing U.S. Census Bureau data, say the unorthodox practice silences minorities and can lead to race-based criminal convictions of innocent people.

The Portland Tribune: Oregon's non-unanimous jury law under scrutiny. A case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court could impact Oregon law allowing 10-2 convictions. 

Oregon's long-time law allowing felony convictions by non-unanimous juries could be tested if the U.S. Supreme Court accepts a case challenging a similar law in Louisiana.


Light of Justice

Our constitution guarantees fairness and even-handedness, yet too often, our criminal justice system fails to protect the constitutional rights of the accused. Bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and poor representation by defense lawyers infect outcomes, and Louisiana courts and prosecutors in particular have a long history of violating constitutional rights.

PJI works to hold prosecutors and courts accountable for violations resulting in injustice by exposing and addressing violations of constitutional rights in individual cases. While we cannot represent everyone who suffers injustice, we help prisoners gather the documents necessary to becoming their own advocates against injustice. We also provide representation and friend-of-the-court briefs in a limited number of cases.

Injustice serves no one. Innocent people languish in prison while the guilty go free. Bias in the prosecution of crimes results in disparate treatment of African-American, mentally ill, and intellectually disabled citizens. Ineffective defense representation deprives juries of facts necessary to reach just verdicts. The same is true when prosecutors deny the accused access to favorable evidence. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly declared that Louisiana’s prosecutors have withheld evidence that may prove innocence.

Our work with prisoners is spearheaded by Calvin Duncan, whose talent and commitment earned him a 2013 Soros Justice Fellowship to carry out his mission. Mr. Duncan experienced the injustice of Louisiana’s criminal justice system first-hand, spending over 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Duncan now devotes himself to helping prisoners overcome barriers to challenging wrongful convictions by providing them with:

  • Legal documentation
  • Better-equipped prison libraries with up-to-date legal information
  • Access to and review of police and district attorney files

Non-Unanimous Jury Project

By the time Louisiana 1898 Constitutional Convention convened, it was clear that African Americans could no longer be legally denied participation in criminal jury trials.  But to continue the “supremacy of the white race,” laws were enacted to limit the effects of African Americans participation in criminal jury trials.  Louisiana went from unanimous jury verdict system to non-unanimous system.  Every State in the United States, in addition to the federal government, requires unanimous jury verdicts in order to convict a defendant, except Louisiana and Oregon.  Louisiana’s racially-discriminatory-non-unanimous-jury-verdict system allows a defendant to be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison based on a less them unanimous jury vote.

Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury verdict laws discriminate against African Americans.

Oregon’s non-unanimous jury verdict laws are both racist and anti-semetic. 

What is being done?

Litigation is being taken to repeal Louisiana’s racial discriminatory non-unanimous jury verdict laws. 

Pending cases:  

Presently before the U.S. Supreme Court is Dale Lambert v. Louisiana, No. 16-9132.  In Lambert v. Louisiana, an Amicus Curiae Brief has been filed by Lewis & Clark Law School Criminal Justice Reform Clinic.

Other amicus curiae briefs filed in other cases:

Derrick Todd Lee v. Louisiana, No. 07-1523:  Amicus Curiae Briefs filed by:

Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers;

American Bar Association;

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers;

Federal Public Defender for the District Court of Oregon;

Houston Institution for Race and Justice.

Corey Miller v. Louisiana, No. 12-162:  Amicus Curiae Briefs filed by:

Constitutional Accountability Center;

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association

Ortiz T. Jackson v. Louisiana, No. 13-11055:  Amicus Curiae Briefs filed by:

Innocence Project of New Orleans

Dale Lambert v. Louisiana, No. 16-9132.  

Amicus Curiae Brief has been filed by Lewis & Clark Law School Criminal Justice Reform Clinic.



Prison Conditions Project

Conditions of confinement in the Louisiana prison system violate the constitutional rights of many prisoners. Due to overcrowding, limited funding, and a narrow focus on retribution, prisoners in the Louisiana endure unnecessarily harsh conditions in their daily lives. The Prison Conditions Project provides legal support to our clients who need assistance holding the state accountable for their conditions of confinement. The Promise of Justice Initiative advocates and litigates for humane, dignified and constitutional treatment of our clients. We seek to infuse Louisiana’s prison system with reason, necessary reform, and a respect for human dignity. Our work is supported by the Venture Justice Fund.


Inhumane Heat Conditions

In June 2013, the Promise of Justice Initiative, with co-counsel Bird Marella P.C. and Attorney Steve Scheckman of Schiff, Scheckman & White LLP, filed a federal complaint on behalf of three death row inmates, who were mentally and physically struggling with the extreme, inhumane heat conditions on death row tiers at Angola. Temperatures on death row approached dangerous and life-threatening levels.

Execution Protocol Disclosure

In December 2012, the Promise of Justice Initiative filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jessie Hoffman to challenge the State’s refusal to turn over its procedures on lethal injection. After fighting for and winning public disclosure of these procedures, PJI continues to litigate the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures in Louisiana.

Inadequate Medical Care at Angola

Adequate medical care is a right under the Eighth Amendment. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, however, prisoners are denied even basic care resulting from, among other factors, overly restrictive policies and staff shortages. In May 2015, the Promise of Justice Initiative, with co-counsel Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, the Advocacy Center, and the ACLU of Louisiana, filed a federal class action complaint on behalf of a class of prisoners who are subject to Angola's provision of medical care. Plaintiffs include men who have been denied even basic diagnostic testing for serious diseases, men who have been denied surgery for obvious and painful conditions, men who are disabled but are not reasonably accommodated under the law, and men with chronic care needs whose conditions have needlessly deteriorated because of the prison's lack of adequate care. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to deliver constitutionally adequate medical care to prisoners at Angola.



PJI regularly receives phone calls from prisoners who are requesting help with any number of difficulties they face in prison, from poor access to necessary medical and mental health care to the use of excessive force. PJI advocates with prison officials for improved responses to prisoners’ basic needs in appropriate individual cases.