DOJ Intervenes in Class-action Suit Challenging New Orleans Jail Conditions; Consent Judgment Entered
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) intervened in a class-action lawsuit that alleged “abusive and unconstitutional conditions of confinement” at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in New Orleans, Louisiana. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), resulted in a consent judgment approved by the court in June 2013.
The DOJ’s intervention in the case came three years after the Department issued a findings letter that concluded numerous conditions and practices at the OPP violated prisoners’ constitutional rights. The DOJ’s September 2009 letter found prisoners were not protected against harm from excessive use of force by staff and prisoner-on-prisoner violence due to inadequate supervision; that prisoners did not receive sufficient medical and mental health care, including proper suicide prevention; that inadequate fire safety precautions placed prisoners at serious risk; and that the jail’s physical structure caused an unreasonable risk of serious harm to prisoners’ health and safety. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.30].
However, the DOJ did not take further action until three weeks after the class-action suit was filed by the SPLC. In an April 23, 2012 letter to the City of New Orleans, DOJ officials said deficiencies at the OPP required “emergency action.”
“The depth and breadth of horror stories coming out of that jail are really consistent, which is troubling,” stated SPLC managing attorney Katie Schwartzmann. The DOJ’s motion to intervene “further confirms the gross neglect, sadistic rapes, and brutal beatings that have become so commonplace at Orleans Parish Prison. We hope the sheriff will stand up and finally address the abusive and inhumane conditions that have plagued the jail for far too long.”
A major contributor to violence at the OPP is the understaffing of “densely populated housing pods” and inadequate classification of prisoners, the lawsuit claimed. The sheriff’s office “has failed to take minimum reasonable measures to protect prisoners from harm and is deliberately indifferent to the obvious and substantial risk of harm to prisoners caused by OPP staff and other prisoners.”
According to the SPLC, documents from the sheriff’s office indicate that in July 2011, guards beat a prisoner in the jail’s temporary tents and tried to cover it up. Further, three prisoners were stabbed by other prisoners, including one who died.
In addition to rampant violence at the OPP, the class-action suit cited a lack of adequate mental health care, general unsanitary conditions, poor food and insufficient assistance for Hispanic prisoners who do not speak English.
There is a complete lack of safeguards for suicidal prisoners, the complaint alleged. The main job of one OPP psychiatrist was “writing prescriptions and occasionally providing reactive crisis care.” Finally, the sick call process at the jail was inadequate and failed to properly treat prisoners’ medical needs.
In April 2013, the district court released videos taken by prisoners using contraband cell phones inside the OPP’s now-closed House of Detention, which showed them using drugs, gambling, drinking beer and displaying a loaded gun at the jail. One video even showed a prisoner who had apparently escaped and was walking down Bourbon Street, an area known for bars and strip clubs. The release of the videos resulted in a firestorm of criticism against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman; the videos, which were four years old, reportedly had been locked in a safe at the sheriff’s office and not previously disclosed.
“It is now clearer than ever that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is not keeping the prison secure and our city safe,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The DOJ informed the district court that both parties had agreed to its motion to intervene in the class-action suit because that would be the most efficient way to resolve the case “with a single, comprehensive remedy.”
On June 6, 2013, the court approved a consent judgment between the DOJ, the plaintiff class and the sheriff’s office. The 53-page judgment addressed issues ranging from use of force policies, procedures, training and reporting to staffing, mental health care and suicide prevention, medical care, sanitation and environmental conditions, fire safety, juvenile prisoners held at the jail, and compliance and monitoring. The consent judgment will remain in effect until the defendants achieve substantial compliance with its terms and have maintained substantial compliance for two years.
According to the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, however, “The consent decree has not resulted in significant improvement in the conditions in the jail, and the first report of the federal monitoring team found that inmates in OPP ‘continue to experience severe problems with shoddy medical care, violence and a general attitude of apathy toward their grievances.’”
Indeed, there have been ongoing problems at the OPP following the approval of the consent judgment. On March 23, 2014, a prisoner died following a fight with another prisoner at the jail’s temporary tent housing unit. The prisoner, Willie Lee, 40, reportedly died due to heart failure.
Further, OPP guard Lateefa Marshall, 32, was fired and named a fugitive in May 2014 after being charged with assaulting a female prisoner at the jail. Marshall, who faces a felony charge of malfeasance in office, is accused of starting a fight with the prisoner and then filing a false report concerning the incident.
“It basically amounted to simple battery,” said Sheriff Gusman. “She was seen striking the [prisoner] several times but there were no other weapons involved. But this was a type of conduct that should not have occurred. We don’t tolerate that conduct.”
In October 2013, the parties to the class-action suit agreed to settle the amount of attorneys’ fees in the case, with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office agreeing to pay $900,000 to the SPLC in 60 monthly installments of $15,000 each, beginning on January 15, 2014. See: Jones v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00859-LMA-ALC.
The sheriff’s office subsequently entered into a partial settlement agreement with the City of New Orleans, which it had named in a third-party complaint in the SPLC’s class-action suit, in April 2014. The agreement addresses funding to hire additional jail staff in fiscal year 2014, which will help the sheriff’s office comply with the terms of the consent judgment.
Most prisoners held at the OPP will be moved to a new $145 million, 1,438-bed facility, the Intake & Processing Center, which is scheduled to open soon. The provisions of the consent judgment apply to the new facility.
In May 2014, the New Orleans City Council released details about a new plan for the parish’s jail system, which includes a smaller jail population, minimizing new jail construction and housing prisoners with mental health needs at the Intake & Processing Center.
Sheriff Gusman did not attend the event, stating it “would not be beneficial” due to unresolved issues between the city and the sheriff’s office. Gusman wants to renovate another 285-bed jail facility, known as Templeman V, and use it to house high-security prisoners.
The city’s jail system plan would cost around $6 million while Sheriff Gusman’s proposal would cost an estimated $10 million.
Additional sources: Associated Press, Times-Picayune, www.opcso.org, www.theneworleansadvocate.com, http://opprc.wordpress.com, www.nola.com
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Related legal case
Jones v. Gusman
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00859-LMA-ALC|