New Orleans jail abandons 'direct supervision' model as staffing slides

The $145 million jail was designed to encourage direct supervision, but the dream has never been achieved because of staffing shortages

By Matt Sledge
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

NEW ORLEANS — When Sheriff Marlin Gusman opened New Orleans' gleaming new jail in 2015, he promised that inmates would live in a different kind of lockup. Under a “direct supervision” model that has reduced violence elsewhere, he said, deputies would spend entire shifts inside the jail’s various "pods."

The $145 million jail was designed to encourage direct supervision, but the dream has never been achieved because of staffing shortages. And as the jail’s employee headcount continues to slide, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday that it is abandoning for now its goal of one-on-one interaction.

“Those efforts have fallen short, first and foremost due to a chronic lack of staff available to man all posts, essentially setting staff up for failure from the start, as it is impossible for proper direct supervision to occur when a deputy is assigned to more than one unit,” officials said in a federal court filing.

Instead, deputies will be assigned to two pods at a time, with orders to cycle through both of them on security checks at 30-minute intervals. Deputies will be trained to lock down their units and converge on other pods when emergencies arise.

The policy shift seems to be as much an acknowledgment of reality as anything else. Federal monitors have noted that pods were often unmanned during the monitors' tours of the Orleans Justice Center.

When and if the jail can replenish its staffing headcount, it hopes to return to the direct supervision model, as it eventually must do under the mandates of a federal reform agreement.

An attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans who represents the jail inmates said she hopes the shift in policy will be a positive measure in the interim.

"OPSO has proposed a stopgap measure that we hope will improve prisoner safety in the short term," said Emily Washington. "We expect that OPSO will continue to work toward the ultimate requirement of a direct supervision facility.”

The jail still intends to staff several pods with full-time deputies, including the youth tier, the disciplinary pod and the mental health pod. All of those pods must be walked at 15-minute intervals under the terms of a federal court mandate.

The major management changes were announced in a document filed in court as part of the Sheriff’s Office’s reform agreement with the federal government. That consent decree is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.

Gusman was stripped of almost all his powers under the 2013 agreement, and the jail is now being overseen by Darnley Hodge Sr., a former corrections official in Virginia who was appointed by Africk in February.

The blunt report filed in court Tuesday — the first to be placed on the record since Hodge took over — represents a break from the upbeat documents filed by his predecessor, Gary Maynard, and tracks much more closely with the dire observations of federal monitors appointed by Africk.

Hodge’s report says hiring has been frozen since a former human resources director was fired in February. It also says violence persists in the jail and the number of suicide attempts is “unacceptably high.”

Since the HR director, Johnette Staes, was fired in February, no new deputies have been hired. Staffing has dipped from a recent high of 800 employees in July 2017 to 678 employees as of March.

The jail had 39 inmate-on-inmate attacks in February and 51 such altercations in March, the court filing said. Jail officials hope they can stem the violence by writing more inmates up on disciplinary infractions.

There has not been a completed suicide at the jail in 355 days, according to the report. Yet there were 21 attempts in February and another nine in March. A significant proportion of the February attempts may have come from inmates in high-security pods who were feigning suicide in order to win a transfer to less restrictive units, the report said.

©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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