A high-ranking Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy served a lengthy suspension without pay recently for failing to alert the agency’s leadership to a bloody fistfight between an inmate and a rookie guard at the city’s new jail.
The deputy, Maj. Rochelle Lee, had been disciplined a few months earlier for a separate incident in which the Orleans Justice Center descended into disorder for several hours on her watch, according to newly released Sheriff’s Office documents.
Both episodes highlight concerns voiced repeatedly in recent months by a team of court-appointed experts overseeing a federal reform effort at the jail. The experts, known as monitors, issued a report Friday reiterating their concerns that deputies are underreporting jailhouse violence and that, in some cases, the Sheriff’s Office leadership is not even aware of inmate attacks.
The New Orleans Advocate inquired about Lee’s suspension last month, but the Sheriff’s Office refused at the time to confirm the name of the major who had been disciplined. Details of the case were spelled out in internal reports released in response to a public-records request.
The documents show that at least one other jail official, Sgt. Debra Jones, was suspended for several violations in her response to the same fistfight. Surveillance footage captured her “standing by (and) watching” as Timothy Fleming, the rookie guard, wrestled with an unnamed inmate.
Fleming has since resigned.
The Sheriff’s Office began an internal inquiry in December after the warden of the jail, Capt. Chad Ruiz, did not learn about the violent tussle for a week. Lee had been the watch commander on duty Dec. 2, the day of the fight, but she failed to notify the warden even after she witnessed Fleming being taken to the jail’s medical clinic with blood on his shirt.
The fight apparently began after Fleming placed a “belly chain” around the inmate in order to transport him to court. The inmate complained that the chain was too tight, according to Sheriff’s Office reports, and began swinging his elbows at Fleming. The incident escalated into a full-blown fight in which the guard and inmate “started swinging closed fist(s) at one another.”
A report on the incident was not completed until more than a week later, the documents show, even though Sheriff’s Office policy requires such reports to be completed “within 72 hours of an incident.”
Lee, in an interview with internal investigators, said she knew of the fight but stressed that she had not been “made aware of the incident by her floor supervisor.” In a follow-up interview, she said she did not know she was required to notify the warden of the fight by phone “but she guess(es) she should have.”
The Sheriff’s Office disciplinary board sustained three rules violations against Lee, including neglect of duty. She was suspended Dec. 14 and returned to work Feb. 12.
The board in October had suspended Lee for 13 days for neglect of duty after a random building inspection — at 2:30 a.m. — by Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s top deputies. Carmen DeSadier, who recently resigned as chief corrections deputy, reported finding inmate housing units “without a deputy present” and a situation on pod 2D in which two inmates “were out of their cells from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.”
On the 2E living unit, TVs had been left on and towels and food trays had been left on tables, according to Sheriff’s Office records.
Surveillance footage showed that in another unit, 3C, a deputy conducted roll call at 6:30 p.m. and did not return until two minutes before midnight.
“Chief DeSadier added (that) the floor sergeant was also absent,” the reports say, and there “was no accountability in the jail on the part of Maj. Lee.”
The team of court-appointed experts, who are monitoring the Sheriff’s Office’s compliance with a federal consent decree, have warned that the $150 million facility is dangerously understaffed. Manpower shortages have prompted the sheriff to relocate hundreds of pretrial inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.