Fate Vincent Winslow, 52, is serving life without parole at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. Winslow’s crime was selling $20 worth of weed to an undercover police officer in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2008.
Because he had nonviolent priors (one for cocaine possession, another for rifling through a parked car but not taking anything, and another nonviolent break-in), he was deemed a habitual offender after he opted to go to trial over the pot charge.
Winslow, who is black, was found guilty by a predominantly white jury. One juror felt bad when she recalled that the amount of pot Winslow had sold was “ridiculously small.” Still, thanks to Louisiana’s habitual offender law, once prosecutors had secured his guilty verdict in the $20 pot sale, Winslow was automatically sentenced to “life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence” and sent to Angola. The prison complex, which sits atop a former slave plantation, is roughly the size of Manhattan and houses around 6,300 prisoners.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Winslow is scared for his life. The prison packs dozens of men into each sleeping dorm each night and doesn’t let them adhere to social distancing guidelines during the day. “Yes, we eat together,” Winslow tells Reason. “Everybody bunch up and we still get one bar of soap a week, watered-down bleach with no smell … no kind of sanitizer at all … no doctor to check on you. So all you can do is a lot of praying.”
Even short jail and prison terms have become death sentences in the pandemic. The first female federal prisoner to die, 30-year-old Andrea Circle Bear, who’d been pregnant when she got sick, was serving two years on a nonviolent drug charge. Seven out of the top 10 COVID-19 cluster sites in the country are correctional facilities, not nursing homes and meatpacking plants.
Louisiana has sent at least 100 prisoners who tested positive for the coronavirus to Camp J at Angola, which used to operate as a solitary confinement facility and had been shut down in 2018 following multiple inmate suicides. As The Appeal reported, the Louisiana Department of Corrections appears to be underreporting COVID-19 infections and deaths; they claimed 55 people have tested positive, but the true number, as of May 1, was at least 115 infected. Of the 11 state prisoners who have died of coronavirus, nine have come from Angola according to local news station WDSU. Nevertheless, the prison has not instituted widespread testing.
Peter Scharf, an epidemiologist at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center New Orleans who studies correctional facilities, observes that most Angola prisoners are already destined to die there because of the severity of their sentences—a fact really brought home by the pandemic. “The infections adds to this reality,” Scharf notes. “It’s very far away from anything, you don’t have the kind of medical capability in the area that could handle a large amount of people with infections.”
Like many prisons, Angola’s environment is extremely conducive to a flare-up of respiratory viruses.
“The dorms are very closed in. And, also, the work is farming work—they’re clustered together even though outdoors. And the medical resources have historically lagged behind other more modernized prisons,” Scharf says. “If somebody gets sick…it’s difficult given the architecture of the facilities to isolate them in any meaningful way. They sleep together, eat, work together.”
The prisoners are also in close physical proximity to guards who come in and out of the prison, threatening to bring new infections to Angola. There are 1,800 staff members, including guards, cooks, and cleaners, who cross between the prison and their own homes and communities on a daily basis, putting the prisoners at risk.
A man in Winslow’s dorm recently fell ill with a suspected case of coronavirus. The inmate, Winslow says, was making between 2 and 4 cents an hour taking care of Angola’s death row inmates. “The bad news is they still got people working back there at death row,” Winslow writes in a letter. “They got four or five cases back there and one of the inmates that work back there is in my dorm. Well they took him out of here yesterday and they say he got it and he has a lot of friends in here that he smoke with, eat with, and talk to so I need your prayers more than ever.”
Winslow points out that his dormmate was not making nearly enough to risk the potentially deadly illness.
“They demand some of the inmates to work and they only pay them 2 to 4 cents an hour and some have to wait three years before they can recieve the 2 cents. It’s miserable seeing inmates going without nothing and having to go place theirselves in harms way just to do the work that a officer or a social worker should be doing,” he writes.
He also describes how conditions in the prison are deteriorating during the pandemic:
“Just imagine that some inmates have been stabbed in the face or had urine and [feces] thrown on them. Before they closed Camp J down there was these same things happening over there. The officers don’t mine as long as they do not have to do this job. These inmates that are housed on death row should have professional people dealing with them, especially concerning the Coronavirus.”
The prisoner who worked on death row ended up testing negative—he’d apparently had a stomach virus. But Winslow and the other inmates remain uneasy.
“Well they took one out of here saying he had it but they brought him back and he said they said he had a stomach virus. He said everybody else they tested had it but him,” Winslow writes. “I stay [away] from around him and everybody is keeping an eye on him … all I can do is stay prayed up.”
Winslow says that in April, he didn’t get his 80 cents a week for cleaning the dorms. And he worries about retaliation for speaking up about the disintegrating conditions. “I work all April, and did not get paid, I’m praying that these new laws help a life sentence for 2 five dollar bat of weed. Well I know that they are going to lock me up for writing you.”