A mass exodus began Tuesday at the city’s understaffed jail, as Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman revealed previously undisclosed plans to transfer another 600 inmates out of the Orleans Justice Center by the end of next week.
One longtime jail critic said the move “has the potential to bring our entire justice system to a halt.”
Only about a third of the city’s total inmate population will remain in New Orleans once the latest transfers are completed. Several hundred local inmates already have been sent to jails in northeastern Louisiana, underscoring the crisis unfolding at the newly opened jail.
Of the city’s 1,583 inmates, just 533 will be housed here for the time being, according to court papers filed late Tuesday by the sheriff’s attorneys.
The remaining detainees will await trial in jails outside of the parish, most of them several hours away in East Carroll Parish, a lockup that is closer to Memphis, Tennessee, than to New Orleans.
The move, intended to improve the ratio of deputies to inmates, comes a month after an outside corrections expert recommended that portions of the new $150 million jail be closed until the Sheriff’s Office can retrain its guards and reduce the rampant inmate violence due in large part to a lack of supervision.
Conditions at the Orleans Justice Center have become so perilous of late that the U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge last week to appoint an outside official known as a receiver to take control of day-to-day operations at the city’s jail — a request Gusman vehemently opposes.
The government rarely makes such a request, but it indicated that it has lost faith in the sheriff’s ability to right the ship.
The latest transfers “will allow (the Sheriff’s Office) to properly train its staff and have appropriate staffing levels to meet the requirements” of court-ordered jail reforms, James Williams, a Gusman attorney, wrote in a court filing Tuesday.
“This will also create a safe and secure environment for both staff and inmates,” he added, “and is clear evidence that (the Sheriff’s Office) is working hard” to comply with a federal consent decree that requires sweeping changes at the jail.
Gusman denied that any inmate transfers had taken place this week when approached earlier Tuesday by The New Orleans Advocate at an unrelated event. The sheriff also did not disclose his intention to ship hundreds of inmates out of the city on Monday as he led reporters on a tour of the new jail and touted his agency’s supposed progress with the court-ordered reforms.
But Williams spelled out the transfers in court filings, informing U.S. District Judge Lance Africk that the Sheriff’s Office already has sent more than 100 inmates to East Carroll Parish this week and would transfer nearly three dozen more by Wednesday.
The Sheriff’s Office is “currently working on a plan to transfer sentenced inmates to another facility (that) would result in approximately 80 inmates leaving the Orleans Justice Center,” he wrote. “In total, (the office) is in the process of moving approximately 600 inmates out of the Orleans Justice Center, resulting in a remaining total of approximately 533 inmates.”
Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center whose class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates prompted the consent decree, said that news of the transfers was “astonishing.” She said the move would prove devastating for inmates and their families and would strain already “overextended” defense attorneys.
“The sheriff just filed a document stating that soon fully 1,000 of our Orleans Parish pretrial detainees will be housed out of the parish,” Schwartzmann said. “This has the potential to bring our entire justice system to a halt. And once again, the people in the jail and our whole criminal justice system suffer because of the sheriff’s inability to safely run the jail.”
The sheriff has blamed his chronic staffing shortages on city leaders, who have declined to approve pay raises for deputies. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration is responsible for paying for inmate care under state law.
“It’s almost as if they’re trying to set us up for failure,” Gusman said at a news conference Monday in which he vowed to resist a “federal takeover” of the jail.
Hayne Rainey, a Landrieu spokesman, responded that “any allegation of lack of cooperation on the part of the city is unsupported and simply an attempt to shift the focus off of managing the jail.”
Earlier transfers of inmates to East Carroll Parish drew criticism from local defense attorneys, including public defenders.
“For us, an office already struggling with resources, to impose this kind of strain is just something we would never have agreed to,” Derwyn Bunton, the city’s chief public defender, said after the transfers last year. “The system can expect delays, because, constitutionally, we’re going to have to maintain contact with our clients.”
Susan McCampbell, the outside corrections expert monitoring conditions at the Orleans Justice Center, told Africk last month that she and her team essentially had no choice but to recommend closing parts of the new jail.
Despite two years of federal supervision, she said, many of the reforms remain unfulfilled, and inmates are still being injured with alarming regularity.
“Our view is that, generally, there is insufficient staff in the building who are insufficiently trained and supervised,” she told the judge.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.