Much of the controversy engulfing Orleans Parish Prison is rooted in the lack of adequate staff and the regular violence that has made it one of the most dangerous jails in the country. A less publicized concern is the lockup’s aging physical structure — a hazard critics warn could prove perilous for inmates in the event of a fire.
Seeking to forestall a catastrophe, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice and the group of inmates who filed a landmark lawsuit over the jail’s unconstitutional conditions asked a federal judge Tuesday to hold Sheriff Marlin Gusman in contempt for failing to plug gaping holes in OPP’s fire- and life-safety infrastructure.
Required improvements were spelled out in a court-ordered overhaul of the jail that went into effect in October, but as with many other aspects of the federal consent decree, inmate advocates contend, the sheriff has not held up his end of the bargain.
New court documents allege Gusman has not acted on several issues identified during an inspection of the jail last month by the state fire marshal. For the third straight year, inmate advocates said, some of OPP’s facilities failed their annual fire inspection.
“Despite being on notice for years that OPP has life-threatening fire- and life-safety deficiencies, OPP continues to have an inoperable sprinkler system, no smoke evacuation system, questionable fire alarms and no clear plan or training for evacuation in the event of a fire emergency,” Katie Schwartzmann, of the MacArthur Justice Center, and Laura Coon, of the Justice Department, wrote in a court filing.
Gusman’s spokesman declined to comment on the allegations, citing continuing litigation. The sheriff has said that many of these concerns will be addressed when a new jail building opens. Gusman said during his recent successful re-election bid that the new jail would open in May, but his spokesman, Philip Stelly, said Tuesday that the target date now is late July.
The jail’s fire-safety shortfalls are not new to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who approved the consent decree after hearing extensive testimony last year about OPP’s deepening dysfunction. At the time, an expert hired by the plaintiffs, Manuel Romero, sought to highlight what he said were problems with the fire-safety system. Among his most troubling allegations was that jailers were filing fraudulent “fire watch sheets” instead of properly inspecting the jail’s facilities.
“Plaintiffs had hoped that, given the gravity of the fire- and life-safety risks at OPP, the sheriff would take adequate remedial measures voluntarily,” the inmates’ attorneys wrote in their Tuesday court filings, “but history does not support this optimism.”
The attorneys said the most serious violations found by the fire marshal last month were in the aging structure known as Old Parish Prison, where the fire alarm and sprinkler systems need service. Tiers there and in a holding area known as “the docks” lack electronic locking and unlocking mechanisms on cell doors.
“Although OPP has made strides in key control such that there now is a set of emergency keys for each building,” the inmates’ attorneys wrote, “the potential for catastrophe should a fire break out is extremely high if deputies are required to open each cell in a tier individually with limited visibility and an emergent threat from smoke and fire.”
The court filings say four of the jail’s seven facilities failed the inspection, and that the State Fire Marshal’s Office gave Gusman until April 6 to remedy the problems, which included a finding that “combustible property was not being stored properly” and that blankets and towels were being hung in the jail as privacy curtains. “The use of such materials as privacy curtains is dangerous both because the materials are flammable, and because such curtains provide a visual obstacle in a facility rampant with sexual assault,” the inmates’ attorneys wrote.
A spokesman for state Fire Marshal Butch Browning did not respond to messages seeking comment on why the deficient facilities were allowed to remain open.
Schwartzmann and Coon asked Africk to order a series of immediate improvements, including holding regular fire drills and weekly tests of emergency power generators, appointing a full-time fire- and life-safety director, and naming a safety officer for each jail building. The inmates’ attorneys also want jail officials to submit “comprehensive fire prevention and emergency evacuation policies” within four months. “Every day that people are held in OPP with an inadequate fire system, hundreds of lives are at risk,” they wrote.
A hearing is scheduled for Monday in Africk’s courtroom to address the jail’s fire-safety problems. Inmate advocates have not asked that Gusman be fined or otherwise sanctioned — only that he be made to comply with the consent decree he signed last year.