Coronavirus

At Angola, Coronavirus Turns Life Without Parole for Selling Weed Into a Potential Death Sentence

Fate Vincent Winslow, who has never committed a violent crime, fears catching coronavirus in prison.

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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."

NEXT: Make ‘Temporary’ Regulatory Relief Permanent After the Pandemic Passes

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  1. This might sound cold, but I’d rather die of a respiratory infection a few years into my life sentence than rot for decades in prison. I used to work in a prison. The idea of being incarcerated and forfeiting all my liberty is quite simply my worst possible nightmare. Compared to that, dying of a cold is nothing.

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  2. If he is under 80 years old, he is in no real danger.

    1. Age, in and of itself is not so much the issue. It is significant health problems – diabetes/heart disease/COPD that matter. Which help explain why about 2/3rds of New York’s deaths are not from nursing homes.

      If he is unhealthy then he is at risk. Of course, so is everyone else with such health issues – imprisoned or not – so this article strikes me as the lamest form of special pleading.

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  3. Well, he’s black, and everyone knows this Chinese virus is racist, so . . .

  4. Even short jail and prison terms have become death sentences in the pandemic.

    I had to research the political party of the governor to determine if that statement was factual or not. Because the governor is a Democrat, then the statement is indeed true.

    1. No, it’s idiotic because the virus isnt any deadlier than what humans typically deal with.
      You’re just hopelessly broken and insecure

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  5. A lot of sympathy for the two stupid drug busts, he sure doesn’t deserve a life sentence at hard labor, and the taxpayers sure don’t deserve paying for 50 years of his incarceration. But his coronavirus fear is nonsense. He’s in far more danger from spending the rest of his life with real criminals, crappy food, little exercise or fresh air.

    1. Exactly that. If it is wrong to lock this guy up for life, and I think it is, then he needs to have his sentence commuted. The danger of the virus, whatever it is, has nothing to do with it.

      There are a lot of people in Angola who are murders and rapists and thieves and real monsters who belong there. Does Reason think we should let those guys out because of this? I sure as hell don’t.

      1. I’ve only seen Reason advocate for the release of non-violent criminals. Though I’m sure JesseAz will tell me I’m wrong.

        1. Since when does something being “non violent” mean it is not a real crime? Fraud is non violent.

          Beyond that, if reason thinks everyone except the violent should get out of jail, they should argue that. The pandemic has nothing to do with it one way or another.

          1. Fraud IS an initiation of force.

        2. I will mention that Bernie Madoff was a non-violent criminal and did more damage to his victims than somebody who physically assaulted them would have.

          Why doesn’t Reason, when writing these sob stories, also mention the death rates for the age range?

      2. John, do you had a citation for the claim that cancer diagnoses are at an all-time low during this pandemic? I’d love to share it around.

        1. Here you go
          At the University of Pennsylvania Health System, for example, the number of new skin cancers diagnosed by dermatopathologists was down around 80% in March from early February, according to data shared with ABC News. The data reflect a decrease in both invasive melanomas, the most deadly form of skin cancer, and other more common types of skin cancer.

          “It is important that melanoma in particular is diagnosed as early as possible, since the survival rate drops significantly once it spreads to other parts of the body,” said Dr. Carrie Kovarik, a dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

          Other cancer treatment centers have noticed decreases in the number of new cancer patients in recent months, too. The University of Nebraska Medical Center has seen their weekly volume of new cancer patients roughly cut in half over the past month. Mount Sinai’s Tisch Cancer Center in New York has also recorded a 30-50% drop in new cancer patients.

          https://abcnews.go.com/Health/drop-cancer-diagnoses-concern-doctors/story?id=70682238

          I can’t find an overall assessment but all of the evidence shows a dramatic drop in diagnosis.

          1. That’s an easy one to explain. People are visiting the doctor less for routine visits and are hesitant to seek care. Less opportunities to figure out what that lump is or to catch cancer in routine screenings will lower the number of new cases.

    2. I admit I don’t get the narrative here. It’s like coronavirus is being used a wedge issue. If you think her sentence is harsh and unjust, argue that.

        1. He should say that he’s a she. That way she could get the Chelsea Manning treatment. You were born the wrong gender? All crimes are forgiven. I’m still not sure why Edward Snowden hasn’t tried this approach. I’m sorry, Tiffany Snowden (you’re welcome Ed.)

    3. That’s where I stand. The sentence doesn’t make sense unless information is being withheld. I also get trying to take advantage of a situation where prisoners are being released. However, this stance that the virus is any sort of reason to release prisoners is built on some faulty logic. He is probably more at risk outside of prison than in. That of course doesn’t mean that he should be housed, fed, and provided for by the taxpayers for years because he sold some weed

  6. Just when they thought that the danger was over after surviving the no-knock raid and having 10 M15’s waved in their face. No rest for the wicked, eh?

  7. Louisiana prosecutors routinely break the law. Judges down there apparently look the other way (along with the State Bar), and basically co-sign this shitty unethical behavior. They also rubber stamp warrants that are often severely deficient in probable cause. What I’m saying here is that they seem to think nothing of inconsistently applying the law to shitty behavior.

    Why can’t a judge say, you know what, fuck this, I’m not sending a man to jail for the rest of his life for selling a plant? It’s almost like our criminal justice system is completely broken…

    1. You act like this is something unique to Louisiana.

  8. Looking forward to all the tv cop shows switching from “talk or you’ll be in prison with a lot of dudes looking to rape you” to “talk or we’ll let the Virus get you.”

  9. Life without parole is a death sentence, where time is the method of execution.

    1. Is this the same Michael S. Langston who happens to be the Signal Hill chief of police?

      1. I am not, but now am wondering if saying I am would provide unexpected benefits….

  10. WTF is wrong with Louisiana?

    1. Where do you want to start?

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  12. “Life imprisonment at hard labor” for selling $20 worth of pot? Even if he is deemed a “habitual offender”, that sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. Since the Supreme Court has now ruled that the Eighth Amendment does apply to the states (I’m amazed it took so long), it seems like an appeal on those grounds might be worthwhile.

  13. Here is some reference: They got four or five cases back there and one of the inmates that work back there is in my dorm alexandria va electrician

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