A civil rights law firm filed a pair of lawsuits Thursday demanding the release of two New Orleans prisoners who the firm said completed their sentences months ago but remain behind bars in northeastern Louisiana.
Attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center said they believe other inmates are in the same predicament, blaming a "breakdown in the process of releasing prisoners or sending them to (the state Department of Corrections) once they are sentenced by" Orleans Parish judges.
"The lack of a sense of urgency to fix this is appalling," said Katie Schwartzmann, the law firm's co-director. "We had no choice other than to sue to start trying to get people out of jail. In addition to people missing the holidays with their families, the taxpayers are paying to illegally house people in jail right now."
After opening the city's new jail in 2015, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman sent hundreds of New Orleans inmates to East Carroll Parish, in the northeast corner of the state, due to a shortage of trained deputies.
Court-appointed experts have agreed that the Orleans Justice Center was dangerously understaffed and that large sections of the $150 million facility should be mothballed until enough guards can be hired.
That move has proved costly for the city, which must pay for transporting and housing the inmates, and it has infuriated defense attorneys and family members of detainees who are now housed closer to Memphis, Tennessee, than to New Orleans.
The lawsuits blamed the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, state Department of Corrections and East Carroll Parish Sheriff's Office for the unlawful detentions.
"Our office put the Department of Corrections and East Carroll Parish on notice that they are detaining people illegally," Schwartzmann said. "We advised them of this weeks ago."
One of the lawsuits was filed on behalf of Jessie Crittindon, a New Orleans inmate sent to East Carroll Parish who, according to his attorneys, has been eligible for release since August. Since that time, the lawsuit says, his family has "called and visited the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office on multiple occasions" to no avail.
"We have received numerous calls and reports from persons held in East Carroll," said Emily Washington, another MacArthur Justice Center attorney. "The failure of these agencies to immediately correct this problem, when people's liberty is at stake, is unconscionable."
The lawsuit filed for Crittindon alleges that "there are many other individuals being unlawfully detained in East Carroll Parish, but counsel have been unable to determine (their) identities as they do not appear in the prisoner databases for either the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office or the Department of Public Safety and Corrections."
A representative of the Orleans Sheriff's Office could not be reached for comment.