Size of Orleans jail, whom it will house still a matter of debate _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman gives a tour of the new $145 million dollar Phase II Orleans Parish jail in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014.

Bored and often angry, inmates are notorious for damaging their surroundings, from backing up toilets to sabotaging light fixtures. Those awaiting trial in New Orleans are no exception.

But one recent episode of vandalism has raised questions about the sprinkler system in the city’s new $150 million jail, a facility in which, unlike the recently shuttered Orleans Parish Prison, inmates are supposed to be “directly” supervised by deputies at all times.

One afternoon last week, deputies assigned to the second floor of the 1,438-bed lockup responded to a fire alarm and noticed a sprinkler spewing water in cell A2011. The lone occupant of the cell, an inmate named Eddie Watson, denied responsibility, according to a Sheriff’s Office report.

But an investigator soon determined the sprinkler’s cap had been pried off, according to the report, and that “other components of the sprinkler head had markings indicating it had been tampered with.”

Surveillance video prompted the Sheriff’s Office to rearrest Watson, 34, over the weekend on a count of “tampering with monitoring systems,” a crime that carries up to two years in prison.

The Sheriff’s Office report said water from the sprinkler “went all the way through the tier, beyond the interlock, and down hallways on the second floor” of the new jail.

Because the facility opened just last month, a City Hall spokesman said, there are no historical data by which the Sewerage & Water Board could estimate the amount of water that flowed into the jail.

One law enforcement official referred to the event as “a flood,” but Marc Ehrhardt, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, disputed that, saying the incident had not affected other inmates on the second floor.

“It was only on for one or two minutes at the most,” Ehrhardt said of the sprinkler. He said fire code regulations required the placement of sprinklers in each cell but noted they are “corrections grade,” designed to protect against vandalism.

“Unfortunately, preventing vandalism by inmates is an unending process,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “The (office’s) goal is zero instances like this. The technology available to us in the new building and the changes that the (Sheriff’s Office) has implemented in the supervision of inmates maximize our ability to get as close to our goal as possible.”

Jail officials had to shut off the fire suppression system for the whole building for a time and implement backup fire-watch procedures as the system underwent repairs.

Brant Thompson, deputy chief of the state Fire Marshal’s Office, said the repairs were expected to be completed by Tuesday.

Ehrhardt stressed that the new jail’s system of more than 900 surveillance cameras played a key role in identifying Watson. “This technology allowed us to move quickly with the (Fire Department) to identify and charge the inmate responsible,” he said.

According to the Sheriff’s Office report, the footage showed Watson in front of a door “bent over in a manner that indicated he may be looking for something,” and then peering through a window several times in search “for the deputy.”

“Inmate Watson then stands up with an object in his hand, and then steps out of view,” the report says, noting the sprinkler head also was not in view of the camera. “Approximately 90 seconds later, the sprinkler head activates. In the video, water can be seen coming out the door and extending the entire length of the camera view.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.