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New Orleans Jail Conditions Found Unconstitutional

In June, August and November 2008, the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in New Orleans, Louisiana was the target of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation conducted by the agency’s Civil Rights Division.

Under the auspices of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997, federal investigators were charged with determining if conditions at OPP evidenced a “pattern or practice of conduct that violates the constitutional rights of inmates” at the facility.

Utilizing expert consultants in the areas of corrections, use of force, custodial medical and mental health care and sanitation, the investigators conducted extensive interviews with OPP staff and prisoners. Additionally, a wide range of documents were examined – including policies and procedures, prisoner grievances, medical records, incident reports and training materials.

The results of the investigation were delivered in a “finding letter” on September 11, 2009, addressed to Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman. The letter informed Sheriff Gusman of the numerous procedural and substantive rights violations uncovered by CRIPA investigators.

For example, the investigators determined that OPP failed in its duty to provide “humane conditions” of confinement in the area of prisoner safety, as mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). Numerous cases of unnecessary and inappropriate uses of force by OPP guards formed what inspectors called a “pattern and practice” of improper conduct, which often resulted in serious injury to prisoners. The abusive and retaliatory conduct of OPP guards easily surpassed the level necessary to constitute Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations.

Inadequate reporting of use of force incidents also was in evidence, as was a lack of proper management review of the incidents that were reported. Problems such as these were found to be perpetuated by inadequate policies and procedures governing employee conduct.

The high number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults at OPP further evidenced the facility’s failure to provide a reasonably safe environment. This problem was exacerbated by a faulty classification system used when prisoners went through the initial intake process. Inadequate staffing and supervision of prisoners also contributed to deficient levels of security at OPP.

In the areas of mental health care and medical care, significant problems were noted in terms of suicide prevention, intake classification and referral, assessment and treatment, and medication management. As with many of the other areas of concern cited in the letter to Sheriff Gusman, inadequate staffing played a role in the insufficient mental health and medical care at OPP.

In point of fact, investigators noted that during their visits there were no licensed drug counselors or social workers on staff. Furthermore, the crisis unit that serves all mentally ill prisoners at OPP had only one full-time psychiatrist and one part-time psychiatrist. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a proper quality assurance review process, these and other violations were allowed to persist and worsen.

The overall environmental health and sanitation at OPP also were found to be grievously lacking. From inadequate pest control and poor housekeeping to hazardous structural deficiencies and substandard maintenance, the CRIPA investigators considered the obvious state of disrepair and generally unsanitary conditions at the facility to be at unacceptable levels. Broken toilets, mice and cockroaches, and “obvious electrical hazards” were several items that were specifically mentioned.

Even accepting the challenges placed on OPP by Hurricane Katrina and the widespread destruction that was caused by that storm [See: PLN, April 2007, p.1], it was determined that to avoid unnecessary risks to prisoners and staff, all efforts must be made to ensure that sufficient water, heat, lighting and ventilation were provided in a timely manner.

Upon identifying the myriad violations and deficiencies at OPP, the CRIPA investigators and consultants offered a list of measures that could be taken by state and OPP officials to remediate the various problems. Most basic among those measures was the need for the establishment of “comprehensive and contemporary” policies and procedures at the facility.

Although the findings letter addressed to Sheriff Gusman by Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King sought an amicable and cooperative means of resolving the issues uncovered in the CRIPA investigation, it also served to notify the Sheriff of the lawsuit the Department of Justice would file if appropriate actions to remedy the deficiencies enumerated in the letter were not taken.

Sheriff Gusman referred to the Department of Justice’s investigation as “replete with inaccuracies and half truths,” and “terribly dated [and] fundamentally flawed....” However, judging from the plethora of problems revealed by federal investigators and detailed in the letter from Acting Assistant Attorney General King, the only thing that appears “terribly dated and fundamentally flawed” is OPP itself.

Sources: U.S. Dept. of Justice letter from AAAG Loretta King to Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Sept. 11, 2009; Times-Picayune; Associated Press

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