An incarcerated man at the Angola Prison in Louisiana sued prison officials for throwing him in solitary confinement and denying him due process in retaliation for speaking to a journalist at the local Baton Rouge Advocate.
William Kissinger, imprisoned at Angola for over 27 years, should be considered a “model prisoner” by most measures. But after corresponding with a reporter, he was “taken from his cell in the middle of the night” and moved to a different prison, “where his belongings were seized and disposed of.”
Kissinger spoke to the reporter between December 2015 and February 2016 “about the culture, corruption, and graft at Angola,” as part of an investigation into the Louisiana Department of Corrections. The investigation uncovered corruption and nepotism and eventually led to the resignation of Angola Warden Burl Cain, as well as inquiries into actions taken by other employees.
For “communicating to the outside world about the dynastic culture of greed and corruption permeating one of the largest state departments,” Kissinger was held in solitary confinement for 18 days. He was permitted to leave his cell for only 15 minutes each day. He ultimately served over four months in punitive segregation.
Prison officials retaliated against Kissinger “for his exercise of free speech, and did so in violation of his rights,” his lawyers claim. “The use of solitary confinement and maximum security classification for communication with the press and the public exceeds the punishment sanctioned for other more serious rule violations.”
Kissinger was forbidden from having any reading material and was not allowed to have a toothbrush. He had to brush his teeth with his finger and salt.
Kissinger is “widely regarded as a positive leader at Angola by both prisoners and staff.” As a Vietnam War veteran, he participated in videos produced to help other veterans combat substance abuse. He has completed nearly every educational, mental health, and substance abuse program available to him.
He serves as a certified HIV peer-to-peer counselor and teaches leadership and public speaking skills to other prisoners.
Kissinger’s lawyers point out that in his 27 years behind bars he has an “unusually low number of disciplinary incidents.” He is a trustee, a special designation that allows him to work with the local Little League and participate in other events outside prison.
According to the lawsuit, Kissinger was “subjected to the most severe and punitive treatment accorded by the Department to its prisoners.”
In 1995, Kissinger blew the whistle on prison officials, who relabeled and sold expired cans of food at Angola. The corrections department retaliated against him for speaking out, and after filing a lawsuit, he was granted relief and damages.
Twenty years later, Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Maya Lau uncovered court documents from Kissinger’s 1995 case and reached out to him for help with her story.
Kissinger said, after his previous experience with talking to a reporter, he was nervous. So, he brought Lau’s letter to the attention of prison staff. He was advised by Assistant Warden Bruce Dodd that he should “not worry about” communicating with Lau.
Kissinger then responded to Lau through the JPay, a prison email system which is monitored by officials. The two began to correspond regularly about “life at Angola, staff, and corruption involving funds from the Angola rodeo.”
On February 1, 2016, Kissinger told Lau he had a “large amount of information he was delivering to her via letter soon.” He raised questions he thought she should ask in the course of her investigation and noted he had “additional information” she might like to see.
Three days after sending her this message, Kissinger was summoned by officials and advised he was being written up for a rules violation. The only explanation provided to him was: “Offender William Kissinger #77523 is being placed in Administrative Segregation pending a thorough investigation by Major Michael Vaughn.”
Kissinger was given 15 minutes to gather his belongings. He was forced to abandon all other personal items, including writings, photographs, diplomas, certificates, records, files, compact discs, and a compact disc player. He had to leave behind “personal tools, supplies, and materials prisoners purchase with their own money to use to work in the Angola hobby shop and create goods for sale.”
Against Angola policy, the warden instructed Kissinger to leave his hobby craft items in the possession of another prisoner instead of inventorying, packaging, and securing his property. He was then transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center.
When he arrived, what few items Kissinger packed were confiscated. He was told he would be allowed to keep one bag of personal possessions. Anything that could not fit in this bag was thrown away.
Kissinger was forced to discard much of his property, including a dozen shirts, dress shirts, a Bible, shoes, and CDs. “These are all items Mr. Kissinger personally saved for and purchased over the course of his incarceration,” his lawyers note. “He used the last $27.00 he had in his financial account to mail an expensive woodworking tool to a friend to avoid throwing it away.”
He was moved to Elayn Hunt’s solitary confinement unit, known among prisoners and guards alike as “The Dungeon.” The facility forced him to sleep and sit on concrete, despite his degenerative spinal condition. He was only provided with a mattress at night. He did not have bed sheets or toiletry items; he had no toothbrush and was only given “a wad of toilet paper every other day.”
During the 15 minutes he was allowed out of his cell each day, Kissinger was “shackled with hard restraints, resulting in cuts to his wrists.” A note placed on his cell door said “do not double,” which ensured that he would not be given a cellmate. The lawsuit states that he “sat alone on the concrete in this cell for weeks.”
When Kissinger was brought before the disciplinary board on February 8, he filed several motions “requesting to face his accuser, call witnesses in his defense, have outside counsel present, and be released from administrative segregation pending investigation.” Every motion was denied by members of the disciplinary board.
After fifteen days in solitary, Kissinger was informed for the first time that the corrections department had three charges against him. Two of those charges, which accused him of bribing or coercing another person to violate prison rules and making inflammatory statements, were dropped by the board for lack of evidence.
However, the third charge for cursing, insulting, or threatening another person or for obstructing, resisting, distracting, or attempting to elude staff in the performance of their duties was upheld.
Kissinger asked for a copy of the investigation report but officials refused to produce it. It was not read into the record. His lawyers say he had “no way to defend himself against the charges.”
He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 days in isolation. “Because he had already served 14 days in isolation, Kissinger should have been immediately released from solitary confinement,” the lawsuit argues. “Instead, Kissinger was left in isolation for an additional three days.”
Kissinger spent 18 days in the “Dungeon” before he was moved to a different disciplinary unit, where he was given restricted access to some personal items. This time he had a cell mate, but he was only permitted to leave his cell to go to work and take a shower.
His attempts to mount an appeal were frustrated by prison staff. The first appeal was held under review for 20 days before it was rejected and returned to him as “too lengthy.”
Kissinger re-wrote and submitted a new appeal on the same day, which was also rejected. He was told that “review of the record determined that appellant obstructed officers in the performance of their duties, that his behavior impaired the security and stability of the unit, and that it [was] inevident that the charge and the sentence were motivated by retaliatory purposes.”
He appealed again and was rejected. As of the filing of his complaint, he has “never been provided with any documentation” pertaining to the rule he allegedly violated.
In April, a “Cellblock Review Board” reviewed Kissinger’s security and classification status “to assess whether release to a less restrictive housing assignment is appropriate.” The board recommended he be reclassified back to medium security. However, the warden rejected this recommendation.
Sixty days later, the board issued the same recommendation. This time he was moved to a lower security classification.
For communicating with a journalist out in the open, Kissinger has lost his Class A trustee status and “all attendant rights and privileges.” He lost his job at Angola and in the St. Francisville community. His transfer to another prison has deprived him of crucial access to friends and his support network, as well as hundreds of dollars of personal property, including approximately $2500 in tools and materials.
His punishment has extended beyond himself to place a financial burden on friends and family. He cannot be considered for a pardon “because one must be free of disciplinary infractions for two years to be considered for pardon.”