Federal monitors overseeing implementation of a consent decree concerning conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in New Orleans said they were “very concerned” about the lack of progress in implementing the agreement’s provisions. Forty-nine prisoners died at OPP between April 2006 and November 2016, including several deaths that were not accurately reported, and problems have persisted at a new jail that opened after OPP closed last year.
As previously reported by PLN, after Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) finished haggling over costs and funding in a class-action lawsuit, a consent decree was reached in June 2013 to partially settle the case. The agreement required prompt action to reform unconstitutional conditions related to medical care, suicide prevention and safety measures, staffing and classification of pre-trial detainees. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.44; March 2010, p.30].
Under the agreement, Gusman was to hire a consultant, restructure OPP’s human resources department and hire a new human resources director; the Sheriff’s office was also required to hire a classification manager and a staff member to develop new policies and procedures at OPP, and purchase and install $70,000 in computer equipment.
Gusman hired Tracie Washington, an attorney and president and CEO of the Louisiana Justice Institute, as a compliance officer. In April 2015, Gusman appointed Carmen DeSadier as chief of corrections at OPP. She had previously worked as an administrator at Chicago’s notoriously-violent Cook County Jail, where she had faced allegations of abuse.
A new jail, the $145 million New Orleans Justice Center, opened in September 2015 to replace the aging OPP, which had been cited by the DOJ for numerous problems, including high levels of violence. However, on February 2, 2016, the federal monitors issued a report finding “absolutely unacceptable” levels of violence at the new facility. Additionally, jail staff were not reporting many of the violent incidents. Less than three weeks following the monitors’ report, on February 19, DeSadier resigned from her position as chief of corrections.
Previously, in July 2014, federal monitor Susan McCampbell had notified U.S. District Court Judge Lance M. Africk that “The monitors are very concerned that [the Sheriff’s office] has not timely acted to implement provisions of the partial settlement agreement.” She added, “The rationale for not moving forward with critical hiring/contracting is that only partial funding was provided.” That argument was “unpersuasive,” however, because the partial funding “was known to the Sheriff’s office at the time the agreement was executed.”
A classification manager, McCampbell wrote, is “extremely critical” to ensure the safety of prisoners. The death of Oscar Fuselier, a Vietnam War veteran, demonstrated how critical classification is to safety at the jail.
Fuselier, 59, arrested in late July 2007 for missing traffic court, was housed with violent offenders at OPP. Pre-trial detainee Richard Jackson, 18, was being held on an armed robbery charge when Fuselier was placed in his cell. Jackson began harassing Fuselier because he smelled of urine; he admitted to kicking and stomping on Fuselier’s head, which put him in a coma from which he never recovered.
Fuselier’s death revealed problems well beyond those related to classification. It indicated a lack of oversight into deaths that occurred at or from events that happened at OPP. When it appeared that Fuselier’s medical condition was terminal, the Sheriff’s office had him released while he remained in a coma at the hospital.
The release had several effects. First, it took OPP off the hook for Fuselier’s medical bills. It also freed up the guard assigned to watch him, which was OPP’s stated purpose for the release. More insidiously, releasing Fuselier at the hospital meant he did not die in custody, which relieved jail officials from having to report his death to federal authorities.
As a result, Fuselier’s death “fell through the cracks,” said his son, Daniel Fuselier. Absent an investigation, a hospice doctor listed Fuselier’s cause of death as lung cancer, or natural causes. Fuselier was one of seven OPP deaths not counted by the jail because they occurred after prisoners had been released from custody.
In Fuselier’s case, the reported cause of death made it impossible to prosecute Jackson, whose admission of kicking and stomping Fuselier made the finding of lung cancer sound incredulous. Based upon his confession, Jackson was initially rebooked on a battery charge; however, the charge was later dropped. Charges could not be pursued later because Fuselier’s body had been cremated, destroying any evidence of his injuries.
The practice of jails releasing hospitalized prisoners is fairly widespread. It is not only cost-effective for corrections officials, it manipulates death statistics and prevents investigations into prisoners’ deaths, since they technically didn’t die while in law enforcement custody.
It is “disturbing and disingenuous” and “feels, frankly, like a cover-up,” said Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and lead attorney in the class-action lawsuit challenging OPP conditions that resulted in the consent decree. “To release someone in hours or days prior to their dying, when it is clear that the person is about to die, seems like the intentional circumvention of the public reporting requirements and creates misleading statistics,” she added.
Further, such “release” policies have no benefit for the prisoners. “If the jail is saying they’re released, if that person makes an unexpected recovery, could they walk out of the hospital and go about their lives?” asked Jeffrey Schwartz, a corrections consultant. “The answer is: ‘Hell No,’ they’d go right back to jail to await trial. They are not released.”
Cayne Miceli, 43, was another prisoner who died from events that occurred at OPP, though her death was not reported in the jail’s mortality statistics. She was arrested on January 4, 2009 for biting a hospital guard’s ankles when she thought she was being released too early.
Miceli, who suffered from depression and asthma, continued her erratic behavior at OPP; Sheriff Gusman said she was “hostile and belligerent” in a statement following her death. She reportedly tried to harm herself and guards tightly strapped her down in five-point restraints for four hours. Miceli complained of trouble breathing and lost consciousness.
She was transported to a hospital and placed on a ventilator; the next day, OPP released her from custody without a court order. On January 6, 2009, Miceli was taken off life support and died.
“The final cause of death was bronchial asthma,” said attorney Mary Howell, who represented Miceli’s estate in a lawsuit against OPP. “It is deeply troubling that there is even a question now being raised by the Sheriff’s office as to whether or not her death would be considered an ‘in custody’ death at OPP.” The suit filed by Miceli’s estate settled in October 2014 for $600,000. See: Miceli v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:09-cv-08078-JCZ-JCW.
The standards for in-custody death reporting may bear much of the blame for inadequate reports of prisoner deaths. “In cases of suicide, we ask them to count them because it basically started in the jail,” said Margaret Noonan, who authors the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual report on in-custody deaths in prisons and jails. In other cases, where a prisoner has been sent to a hospital, “it gets a little bit murkier” as to whether a death is reported to the federal agency. The submission of such data by corrections officials is strictly voluntary and there is no penalty for failing to submit death reports.
Of the 49 deaths that occurred at OPP between April 2006 and November 2016, 28 were listed as having resulted from natural causes. That classification, as in Fuselier’s case, is the default cause for many deaths, but it may conceal questionable contributing factors, such as deaths that could have been prevented with adequate medical care.
For example, a urinary tract infection was cited as the cause of death for OPP prisoner Richard Scearce, 60. According to Dr. Bruce Gage, Scearce died in January 2010 after refusing to eat or drink anything. “For him to have died of dehydration and not eating and to be lying on the floor for days and then not to seek involuntary treatment for this individual is just egregious,” he said. “He repeatedly expressed his wish to be dead and to die and he made that happen and he was not stopped.”
“A well-functioning jail takes every death very seriously,” noted Dr. Marc Stern, a U.S. Department of Justice consultant and former medical director for the Washington State Department of Corrections.
While Sheriff Gusman said his office investigates every death, families report being stonewalled when seeking information about loved ones who died in custody. “The families feel like they have to become sleuths and figure out what happened by themselves. It’s a terrible way to have to handle this,” said attorney Mary Howell. “It’s a basic human need to know what happened to the person you love, to understand the narrative so you can deal with [their death]. If you don’t have that information, living with that doubt, feeling like you’re never being told the truth, is a terrible burden to place on these families.”
Miceli’s family was shown no compassion nor were they given information. “I told a ranking officer my sister died, and he chuckled and goes, ‘You can’t die in Orleans Parish Prison. They won’t pronounce you [dead] here,’” said Cristy Richmond. “It was a weird day. It was real surreal. They didn’t make any accommodations for us, and they really didn’t take much care in helping us at all. My sister was dead, and nobody was going to tell us what happened. Nobody acted like it mattered.”
Following the death of OPP detainee Clifton Morgan, 27, who committed suicide on September 28, 2013, former OPP medical director Dr. Samuel Gore and Chief Earl Weaver met with the family to discuss what happened, but they disagreed on the version of events. “Both were literally in each other’s faces, going back and forth,” said Morgan’s sister, Felicia Wilson.
The family was told the investigation report would be made available to them when it was completed. In the end, they were told to hire a lawyer if they wanted to see it.
The U.S. Department of Justice and prisoner advocates have criticized the death review process at the jail as inadequate, as it is conducted by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care, an accrediting agency, recommends that in-custody deaths be reviewed by an outside organization or staff not involved in the death.
“I’m not trying to speak for the Sheriff,” said Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, “but I think if I were in his shoes, I would say to make sure everyone knows I’m not trying to cover up or hide anything, let some independent group come in, be it, the Police Department or the FBI or the state police.”
Gusman, however, decided to take the easy route by hiring a private contractor to provide medical care to jail detainees – thus shifting the blame to the contractor for prisoner deaths. As PLN has reported extensively, private companies have a business model that puts profits before medical care. [See, e.g.: PLN, April 2016, p.1; March 2014, p.1].
After reviewing seven bids, Gusman awarded a five-year contract to a company based in Nashville, Tennessee. “We are pleased to partner with Correct Care Solutions,” the sheriff said in a media release. “Correct Care Solutions is the right fit for the Sheriff’s office as we transition to the new inmate facility and as we work to achieve substantial compliance with the consent agreement.” New Orleans city officials unsuccessfully tried to nullify the contract with the company, citing excessive costs for healthcare at the jail. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.44].
While hiring Correct Care Solutions may be a step forward in meeting the requirements of the consent decree, Sheriff Gusman has much more to do. His claims of underfunding were “unpersuasive” in light of the $3.93 million the city council had allocated at the end of 2013 and in the 2014 budget, combined, for costs incurred by the consent decree. Not only was he to hire new managers and upgrade technology, he was also required to hire more guards.
U.S. District Court Judge Africk called the sheriff’s actions “taking the stairs rather than the elevator” toward reforms. One can only hope that the court’s patience will run out before the death toll and levels of violence at the jail continue to increase.
In April 2016, the Department of Justice reported that within the first 11 weeks of 2016 there were 114 prisoner fights, 12 assaults on staff and 50 suicide attempts at the New Orleans Justice Center, concluding that prisoners at the jail were in “grave danger.” Further, juvenile offenders were “inappropriately subjected to restrictive housing, exposed to adult prisoners, and denied appropriate housing.” The DOJ called for a receiver to be appointed by the federal court to oversee reforms under the consent decree.
A mental health expert, Raymond Patterson, testified in May 2016 that suicide prevention protocols at the jail were still insufficient and prisoners remained at risk of suicide. Thus far this year two prisoners have committed suicide at the Justice Center, including Cleveland Tumblin, 61, who died on March 7, 2016 after hanging himself in a shower area.
“They just have no clue,” said federal monitor Susan McCampbell. McCampbell testified that a comparison of prisoners’ injuries reported by Correct Care Solutions with those reported by jail staff indicated that 40% of injuries were not being reported to the federal monitors by the Sheriff’s office.
“The reality that the [Sheriff’s office] faces every day is that individuals are placed in our custody who have violent histories and mental and physical health issues,” Gusman said in a statement. “We have to care for them in the safest way possible but without the funds to do so.”
On June 21, 2016, the Justice Department and the Sheriff’s office reached an agreement in which DOJ officials would not press the court for appointment of a receiver, but final authority over operations at the jail will be delegated to a compliance director who will oversee the facility until it achieves the reforms required by the consent decree. Sheriff Gusman will pick a compliance director from candidates selected by the DOJ, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.
“The Orleans Parish jail remains in dire need of a complete overhaul, including personnel, policies, and institutional culture,” the MacArthur Justice Center said in a press release.
The class-action lawsuit that resulted in the consent decree remains pending. See: Jones v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00859-LMA-ALC.
Sources: www.nola.com, The Times-Picayune, www.opprcnola.org, www.abcnews.go.com, www.theneworleansadvocate.com, www.louisianaweekly.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|