The troubles with jails continue to mount, in both New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Despite a gleaming new facility, with state-of-art kitchens and cell blocks supposedly easier to monitor, the Orleans Parish Prison is under new and unwelcome scrutiny. An outside expert hired to run the jail, basically superceding elected Sheriff Marlin Gusman, resigned amid continued problems at the lockup, including inmate suicides, fights and drug overdoses.
In Baton Rouge, a new facility is just a dream for Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who has seen several tax proposals for replacement of the old parish prison come and go without action.
The sheriff's office in Baton Rouge contested the allegations in a lawsuit that alleged a 17-year-old inmate was raped and infected with HIV at the jail because of staff negligence.
But as in Orleans, there is always the risk that a federal lawsuit might result in oversight of the 40-year-old Baton Rouge prison -- overcrowded and out-of-date. The sheriff's office is compelled to send prisoners to other facilities to deal with the overflow, at considerable cost.
In federal court in New Orleans, monitors described scant progress in addressing a litany of problems at the prison there. Those included a lack of written policies, poor training, short staffing, drugs and other smuggled contraband and inadequate mental health care, especially for women inmates.
Court-appointed monitor Margo Frasier, a former Texas sheriff, recounted a weekend visit to the jail during which she smelled marijuana smoke. Frasier said monitors found that the drug Narcan had been used 10 times in recent months to treat opioid overdoses — and that deaths occurred in three of those cases.
"The problems with the jail can be fixed," Frasier insisted, as outgoing jail administrator Gary Maynard and Gusman looked on. That has been heard before, but the problems persist in Orleans.
What are the similarities between Baton Rouge and New Orleans? One of them is the high number of prisoners who are awaiting court dates. It is one of the reasons that fixing the jail is not purely a physical problem, nor one limited to the jailers or supervisors, but part of larger challenges in the criminal justice system.
Mental-health and substance abuse issues plague prisons in both places. Despite the support of Gautreaux and other community leaders, voters narrowly turned down a property tax proposal in 2016 to create a Baton Rouge mental health facility to allow officers to divert folks from the prison.
As the sheriff is the first to point out, a significant percentage of inmates ought to be in treatment rather than behind bars.
Making alternatives work, or funding a hugely expensive new prison, appears to be a difficult sell for taxpayers. Baton Rouge is not yet in federal oversight, but one day it might well be. The need for mental-health alternatives is urgent.