Violence, overdoses leads to regression in New Orleans jail consent decree compliance
Lack of staff and training impedes policy adherence in the facility, according to 162-page report by federal monitors
By Joseph Cranney
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — Spikes in inmate-on-inmate violence, fatal overdoses and the use of unnecessary force by deputies have led the Orleans Parish jail to backslide slightly in its compliance with a decade-old consent decree, federal monitors said in a report Friday.
In the report on the back half of Sheriff Susan Hutson’s first year in office, monitors said that many of the issues can be traced to a frequent lack of proper supervision in the housing units of the jail’s main facility, the Orleans Justice Center.
That has allowed inmates to roam from their cells and use metal sheeting, brooms and other supplies to create weapons, monitors said. An undermanned department often resorts to force to quell any unrest without first attempting to de-escalate. And several suspected overdose deaths in the summer came through the jail’s failures to keep out drugs and other contraband.
“Too often the failure to follow policy is blamed on the lack of staff or training,” monitors wrote in the 162-page report, which covered last October through March. Hutson took office last May. “Neither is an acceptable excuse.”
“Whether it is lack of supervision, lack of staff, or inadequate training, the result of failure to follow policy is often harm to staff and/or inmates and must be addressed,” monitors added.
The report comes after a wave of recent violence and unrest at the jail, which has seen its population spike to levels approaching a 1,250-inmate cap. At the end of September, around 1,140 people were housed there; that’s an increase of more than 40% from the population housed there as recently as summer 2021.
Inmates set at least three fires in September, in addition to another incident that involved someone slinging feces. One inmate sliced another from ear to chin with a shank kept hidden in the trash. Four jail supervisors walked off the job briefly in mid-September in protest of the conditions.
In a statement, Hutson noted that the report said the jail saw improvements in 11 areas, including an inmate classification system used in part for security reasons.
“I am encouraged by our close working relationship as we focus together on gaining compliance with the consent decree,” Hutson said in the statement. “I have all assurances that this close working relationship will continue and have more positive outcomes for the agency.”
The consent decree is a settlement from a 2012 lawsuit, overseen by a federal judge, that includes more than 170 provisions around safety, security and inmate healthcare.
The latest report shows the jail is fully complying with fewer than half — about 44% — of those requirements. That’s down from 46% in the monitors’ last report, which covered parts of former Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s tenure. Before the pandemic, the jail was complying with 68%.
For most of the provisions, monitors said the jail was only in partial compliance.
And for a dozen provisions, the jail is failing to comply outright. That’s down from 17 in the first monitors’ report of Hutson’s term. But it’s a significant increase from the five demerits in the last full report under Gusman.
Among the most recent failures flagged by monitors: OPSO staff have failed to review use-of-force incidents in a timely manner. In one instance, a deputy pepper-sprayed a handcuffed inmate less than a week after firing pepper-ball rounds at another inmate. The deputy — who isn’t named in the report — had already been identified as problematic through an early warning system, but a board that reviews use of force hadn’t taken any action.
Monitors cheered some improvements under Hutson. That included her creation of a compliance bureau, specifically aimed at helping to meet federal mandates. Monitors called that a “monumental step in the right direction,” though they noted the office is still in its infancy.
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