The journalists at BuzzFeed News are proud to bring you trustworthy and relevant reporting about the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member and sign up for our newsletter, Outbreak Today.
WASHINGTON — An inmate at a Louisiana prison was choked by a sheriff’s deputy and appeared to lose consciousness later in the struggle, according to video footage obtained by BuzzFeed News. The inmate says it was retaliation for repeatedly requesting medical assistance for symptoms commonly associated with the novel coronavirus.
Bradford Skinner, an inmate in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, said he began asking for medical care on April 3 for coughing and chest pain, according to an account relayed to BuzzFeed News through his lawyers. He said an official sent him away with ingredients to make tea, and dismissed him when he asked for care again the next day.
Skinner said when he tried to ask a different official for help, the first official threatened him with a riot incitement charge and called in additional deputies. He said that was the last thing he remembered before being choked and restrained by a sheriff’s deputy and other prison facility employees.
BuzzFeed News obtained a one-minute video that shows part of the April 4 incident in which an officer is seen choking Skinner; the source of the video requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, which runs the prison, confirmed the video is authentic, but said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that Skinner was restrained after resisting being moved, and had previously made an escape attempt and tried to punch an employee.
In the video, a sheriff’s deputy is seen holding Skinner by the neck before pushing his body down on a railing as two other prison employees hold him and place leg shackles on him. The deputy then holds Skinner by the back of his neck. Skinner’s arms fall limp while he is held over the railing, and he appears to be wearing handcuffs or some other wrist restraint. When Skinner is pulled back up, he slumps onto the ground as other inmates gather around.
“That man in handcuffs, they doing that to that man,” a person is heard saying in the background of the video. Later, someone in the background says, “That man can’t breathe, look.”
Sheriff’s office spokesperson Casey Hicks declined to comment on Skinner’s medical status. Skinner’s lawyer William Most told BuzzFeed News in an email that the sheriff’s office confirmed to Skinner’s lawyers on April 8 that he had been tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As of April 14, which was the last time Most said he spoke with Skinner, Most said neither Skinner nor his lawyers had gotten the results. Skinner said he was feeling better but still coughing and feeling chest pain, according to Most.
“I am being punished for being sick. If this wasn't on camera, it would have been swept under the rug and fell on deaf ears,” Skinner said in a statement provided by his lawyers.
Hicks would not confirm that Skinner was tested for COVID-19 or share any other medical information, but said that as of April 15 he was being held in a section of the prison that does not house inmates who have COVID-19 or who are waiting for test results. Most said Skinner previously had been held in a quarantine section of the prison.
Lawyers across the country have been urging state and federal government officials to release inmates who, like Skinner, were convicted of nonviolent crimes to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. There were “approximately” 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the parish prison where Skinner is being held as of April 15, and 18 inmates who also tested positive had been moved to a section of the maximum-security prison in Angola, Louisiana, designated for confirmed cases from across the state, according to Hicks.
Lacie Dauzat, the pretrial release unit supervisor in the East Baton Rouge Office of the Public Defender, told BuzzFeed News that her office had been working to get nonviolent inmates released from the parish prison where Skinner is being held. The facility houses arrestees waiting for trial as well as individuals convicted of crimes.
“If anything comes out of this pandemic, it may be shining a light on criminal justice reform and how it's needed more than ever,” Dauzat said. “No one is realizing that the majority of people housed in parish jails are pretrial, they have not been found guilty. They’re in there simply because they can’t afford bond amounts.”
Before the April 4 incident, Skinner had been in a work-release program facility located near the main parish prison complex. He is serving a five-year sentence after pleading guilty to drug possession charges, according to court records. Most, Skinner’s lawyer, said the sentence reflected that Skinner had violated parole.
According to the account that Skinner gave his lawyers, he began experiencing chest pains and difficulty breathing on April 3. That day, Skinner asked a warden — he did not name the official he spoke with — for medical care. Skinner said the official gave him a lemon, ginger, and honey to make tea.
Skinner said he went back to the official the next day because he was still experiencing symptoms and they again dismissed his request, so he asked a captain — also unnamed in Skinner’s account — for help. The captain contacted the warden, who directed the captain to write up Skinner for inciting a riot, according to Skinner. Skinner said he asked to call his family, and that other sheriff’s deputies then arrived. That was the last thing Skinner said he remembers before the events depicted in the video.
“This disturbing video lays bare two dangerous epidemics in our country – police brutality and COVID-19 – both targeting black Americans in alarming numbers,” Sarah Chervinsky, who is also representing Skinner, wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “It is unacceptable for three law enforcement officers to participate in choking an unarmed man into unconsciousness, especially when that man has COVID-19 symptoms and requested medical help."
Warden Dennis Grimes said in a statement that Skinner had “attempted to escape by jumping from a moving van and attempted to assault a guard before trying to escape again and incite a riot.” Grimes did not address Skinner’s allegations that he was refused medical care after reporting possible COVID-19 symptoms.
“The inmate continued to refuse compliance and then would not move for transportation. He was taken to our facility and checked out by medical and cleared for booking into the prison where he currently remains in good health. Louisiana Workforce staff stated that he will additionally be charged with Escape, Assault and Inciting a Riot,” Grimes said.
Hicks told BuzzFeed News in an email that after the alleged escape attempt, which took place at the work-release facility site, Skinner was placed in handcuffs and taken behind the facility, where the staff managing the program “could not place him [in] leg restraints due to his combative actions... they called our prison for assistance and the video takes places [sic] after that.”
Most said Skinner hadn’t given his lawyers information about the warden’s account, so they were not in a position to deny or confirm what Grimes said happened before the events recorded on camera. But in response to Grimes’ statement, Most said the sheriff’s office’s timeline confirms that Skinner was choked and restrained after he had been handcuffed and was refusing to cooperate with being moved.
“Choking someone to the point of unconsciousness by the throat while they’re wearing handcuffs and exhibiting passive resistance is illegal, full stop,” Most said.
Dauzat, who regularly works in the parish prison and had been there shortly before speaking with BuzzFeed News on April 15, said she wasn’t aware of Skinner’s allegations. She said inmates have been scared about the spread of COVID-19 and worried about having enough supplies to limit the risk of infection, but that officials had made face masks, soap, and hand sanitizer available. The prison has also made it possible for inmates to telephone their lawyers, which hadn’t been the case before the pandemic, she said.
In response to the coronavirus threat, the prison had taken a variety of extra sanitation measures, provided free family calls to inmates after stopping visitations in March, instituted routine temperature checks for staff and anyone else coming into the prison, and waived all medical and prescription drug fees, according to Hicks.
Rev. Alexis Anderson, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said she didn’t have firsthand knowledge of Skinner’s allegations, but family members of inmates had been calling the coalition “in a panic because [inmates] are sick or have preexisting conditions and couldn’t get anyone to take them seriously.”
Anderson said state officials were placing too many restrictions on who could be eligible for release during the pandemic. Earlier this week, the head of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Corrections announced that a special panel would be considering certain inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes for temporary release if they were in the final six months of their sentence, according to the Advocate.
“The idea that they literally are creating new ways to not let these people out, we just think that everybody is going to be accountable for this,” Anderson said.
If you're someone who is seeing the impact of the coronavirus firsthand, we’d like to hear from you. Reach out to us via one of our tip line channels.