On Valentine’s Day 1930, under heavy security, stern-faced jailers marched more than 150 inmates into a state-of-the-art lockup nearing completion behind the brand-new Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse.
The motley mix of municipal and federal detainees were among the first tenants of a facility the authorities built to take the place of a jail so decrepit that one New Orleans judge declared that “anybody with a toothpick” could break out of it.
The new structure near Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street, by contrast, promised to be impregnable, equipped with “tool-proof” bars that would require an estimated 531 hours of labor to saw through.
Like many of the inmates treated to an early look at the new Orleans Parish Prison, a man known as “Two-Bits” Jones seemed overwhelmed, telling a newspaperman at the time that the imposing facility seemed “too much like a sure enough jailhouse, where you stay a long, long time.”
Tens of thousands of inmates, many far more infamous than Jones, have come and gone in the years since, some even meeting their demise in a fifth-floor execution chamber that was last used in the early 1950s.
In many respects, however, the community itself became the longest-serving captive of a lockup that, after its heralded opening, generated decades of scandal and stood as an ignominious emblem of the city’s troubled criminal-justice system.
Eighty-five years later, authorities finally are on the cusp of closing the building that became known as Old Parish Prison, as they begin transferring hundreds of inmates this week into a new $145 million jail.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the elected official whose primary responsibility is to run the jail, has received a clean slate of sorts after more than a decade of blaming the horrendous conditions at OPP on a physical plant that was outdated when his predecessor, Charles Foti, took office in 1974. Even in that era, The Times-Picayune memorably denounced the jail, considered among the worst in the country, as a “maggot in the middle of the city.”
“There is no love for the Old Parish Prison,” Foti said in a recent interview. Its closing “needed to be done a long time ago.”
The Sheriff’s Office, in opening the new 1,438-bed jail on Monday, will shutter a decaying campus of jail buildings that became such an incubator of violence that they drew national attention and, over the years, the ire of more than one federal judge. Even Gusman’s most consistent critics welcome the turning of the page, though they stress that certain institutional shortfalls won’t be remedied by a change of setting.
“It’s important to also acknowledge that what happened in Old Parish Prison was, of course, not just about the physical building,” said Katie Schwartzmann, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney whose class-action lawsuit prompted a federal consent decree that, beginning two years ago, has required sweeping changes in the treatment of New Orleans inmates. “The brutality and neglect existed only because of a culture that tolerated or allowed terrible things to happen to people.”
‘Night and day’
Aside from Old Parish Prison, the structures slated for closure include the Conchetta detention facility — a converted motel on Tulane Avenue that housed juvenile inmates — and tents that Gusman used to house inmates in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, among others.
The only remaining vestige of the old complex will be the Temporary Detention Center, which the City Council has authorized to provide overflow housing for the next 18 months.
“The difference is night and day with this new jail,” said Earl Weaver, a Sheriff’s Office veteran who is one of Gusman’s deputy chiefs. “We’re all looking forward to it.”
Unlike the old jail, the new one was built to facilitate the “direct supervision” of inmates, a design that is expected to reduce jailhouse violence.
Norris Henderson, a well-known inmate advocate who served time at OPP in the early 1970s, said it would be difficult to overstate the importance of closing the old prison. The opening of the new jail, he said, represents the truest test yet for Gusman, who was elected in 2004.
“This is huge,” said Henderson, founder of the Voice of the Ex-Offender, a grass-roots organization based in New Orleans that supports former prisoners. “If you survived in Orleans Parish Prison, you could make it in any jail in the world. The conditions were that rough and that challenging.”
Michael Tidwell, Gusman’s former chief corrections deputy, likened the oppression at the old jail to the recently mothballed Baltimore City Detention Center, one of the oldest and most dilapidated jails in the United States. Inmates there are perpetually vulnerable to attack, he said, because the “physical plant is such that all of the staff who are there to help you are on the outside, and you’re on the inside.”
“What makes it difficult to be an inmate there is that when you go in, there’s truly no help or redemption for you,” Tidwell added.
“The first thing is the smell, and the second thing is the sound,” Capt. Sidney Holt said of Old Parish Prison, in an interview last year. “I know that smell very well. It slaps me in the face every morning when I get here.”
The city’s history of jailhouse dysfunction is something of a time loop. Orleans Parish Prison has been the subject of constant litigation through the years, prompting various reform efforts that culminated most recently in federal intervention.
The controversies have run the gamut, from escapes and inmate uprisings — or mutinies, as they were once called — to corruption among deputies and dozens of in-custody deaths.
Asked in 1971 who was to blame for the generations of debacle, the Rev. Michael Haley, the jail’s chaplain at the time, mused in an interview with The Times-Picayune that the lockup’s struggles could be attributable to “some kind of sickness in the citizens of New Orleans” — a group of people, he said, who “don’t seem to care.”
“Audubon Park zoo animals get better care than the inmates of Parish Prison,” Haley said. “They get complete physicals.”
By 2013, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk declared that OPP had left an “indelible stain on the community” and had festered into an unconstitutional setting for inmates. And last month, Susan McCampbell, a corrections expert monitoring the reforms that Africk ordered, described the conditions behind bars as “deplorable,” urging that inmates be sent to safer facilities in other parishes if the city’s new jail did not open by mid-September.
McCampbell’s assessment seemed eerily reminiscent of a warning former Sheriff George E. Williams made to city leaders in 1930. Williams wrote that the city’s jail at the time — a rickety structure erected in 1893 whose construction resulted in the indictment of eight of the 17 men who then sat on the City Council — had descended beyond the point of repair and that chronic overcrowding had created a situation in which “anything can happen.”
Much like the new jail Gusman will open Monday, the unveiling of what’s known today as Old Parish Prison, the facility behind the Criminal District Courthouse, was seen as essential, but it came only after tedious delays. In fact, Williams initially refused to fully occupy the new jail, pointing to a lack of bed space in a facility that, at the time, housed 200 federal prisoners.
The opening of OPP — the last inmates were transferred into the jail on May 9, 1931 — was literally overshadowed by the new courthouse, which was built to shield the jail from the view of passersby on Tulane Avenue. One gushing reporter described the colonnaded courthouse as a “public building of unusual architectural beauty and efficiency.” The gray concrete walls and high guard towers of the jail, he added, “induce(d) a bleak mental picture of prison life as appropriately as the court building arouses the thought of stern justice.”
Equipped with a modern laundry and a large chapel just one floor under the so-called death tower, the jail was said to be among the most secure and sanitary in the South. “The public is rapidly learning that the conduct, morals and health of prisoners is universally better with improved prison conditions,” Hull Youngblood, vice president of the Southern Prison Co. of San Antonio, told The Times-Picayune.
But within a year of the jail’s opening, in 1932, nine men were charged in an attempted jailbreak that proved the bars in fact were not immune to smuggled hacksaws and the ingenuity of plotting inmates. One inmate filed through the bars of his cell and made a “murderous assault” on a deputy sheriff — a harbinger of the violence that continues at OPP today. The same year, scandalous reports surfaced regarding the handling of inmates by deputies at the jail.
As early as 1949, questions were raised about the medical care afforded to inmates at Old Parish Prison. That year, Criminal Sheriff John J. Grosch Sr. reported four in-custody deaths he acknowledged might have been averted if inmates had received proper examinations and treatment.
In 1952, more than two dozen inmates signed a letter complaining of beatings by a deputy warden, attacks that were alternately said to have involved a long billy club and a bunch of metal keys. The authorities publicly denied the allegations of brutality.
About five years later, a 17-year-old woman awaiting transfer to a state training school in Alexandria was reportedly beaten at OPP. The sheriff at the time, Louis A. Heyd, refused to discuss the jailhouse violence with the media and also would not allow the woman’s mother to see her daughter.
The living conditions at OPP prompted a class-action lawsuit in 1969 that focused largely on overcrowding.
As noted in a brief history of the jail compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal judge ruled the following year that “the conditions of confinement in Orleans Parish Prison so shock the conscience as a matter of elemental decency — and are so much more cruel than is necessary to achieve a legitimate penal aim — that such confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.” At the time, the jail housed between 800 and 900 inmates, or roughly twice its intended capacity.
“It was grossly overpopulated,” Robert Force, a Tulane University law professor who served as a special master in the jail litigation in the early 1970s, said in an interview. “It was pretty rundown. There was no formal recreation program. Inmates with mental problems were handcuffed to the bars. The prison was basically run by the inmates, and there was a fair amount of violence.”
In 1972, Force warned that the construction of a new jail would not necessarily improve conditions for inmates. “We’re talking about big-league correctional problems,” he said.
A decade into the overcrowding litigation, in 1980, Force filed a report warning that OPP’s population had become “greater than ever before” and that more than 100 inmates were sleeping on the floor of Old Parish Prison — a chaotic situation he said would “shock the sensibilities of decent people.”
In an interview last week, Force said the jail’s seemingly intractable problems were attributable, in large part, to the lack of expertise within the Sheriff’s Office. “The qualification for running the jail was to get the most votes,” he said.
Echoing Gusman, Foti last week blamed chronic underfunding from the city that for years led to a lack of staffing at the jail. “No one, including myself, wanted to keep Parish Prison open,” he said.
The lawlessness of OPP eventually spread to the many additional jail facilities built during Foti’s three-decade tenure, which led to consent decrees to address issues ranging from poor medical care to environmental hazards.
A separate lawsuit was filed in 1994 on behalf of female inmates who reported, among other atrocities, being shackled while in labor.
“It’s a local jail,” said Henderson, the inmate advocate, “but the mindset was that people are in prison inside of this place, and that’s how they’ve been treated.”
The neglect of OPP inmates was further illustrated during Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that caught the Sheriff’s Office flat-footed and stranded inmates in fetid, chest-high water as the jail lost power.
“Some inmates started lighting things on fire, which was only making the situation worse,” recalled one inmate in custody at the time. “We were caged and trapped. We had no food, no water, and even our air supply was restricted.”
Perhaps the most notable lawsuit targeting OPP was filed in U.S. District Court in April 2012 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The 38-page petition claimed that pretrial inmates faced an “imminent risk of serious harm” and that the conditions at the jail represented a public safety crisis. The litigation was soon joined by the U.S. Justice Department.
“Violence regularly occurs at the hands of sheriff’s deputies, as well as other prisoners,” the lawsuit alleged. “People living with serious mental illnesses languish without treatment, left vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.”
Schwartzmann, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case, said the first couple of years of the case involved “getting people to understand and acknowledge the human destruction that was happening in our jail,” even as Gusman denied the allegations.
“He called us and our clients liars, so we had to fight hard to prove what was actually happening behind those walls,” she said. “It was our job, as representatives of the people in there, to move those horror stories out of the dark corners of Old Parish Prison and into the public eye.”
A series of hearings in federal court in 2013 was highlighted by explosive jailhouse videos that showed inmates drinking beer and using drugs, rolling dice and discharging bullets from a long-barreled handgun.
While Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration pushed for the jail to be placed in federal receivership, Africk, the federal judge, ordered wholesale changes at OPP, a consent decree that will govern the new jail as well.
“Whether the closure of the Old Parish Prison building is truly an end to that disgraceful past hinges upon whether the sheriff also ends the culture that allowed these things to happen to people,” Schwartzmann said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.