Attorneys representing inmates at the Orleans Justice Center said Sunday that officials seriously downplayed the severity and length of a disturbance Friday at the jail, leading the public to believe a series of chaotic events over the course of eight hours was merely a one-hour, largely nonviolent standoff.
In a letter to jail officials, attorney Emily Washington said the disturbance apparently involved one or more fights and one or more fires, that it was put down with extensive use of force and that it raised serious questions about lack of oversight inside the facility.
In news releases Friday night and Saturday, Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office said 12 inmates in a fourth-floor "disciplinary unit" barricaded themselves in the unit about 8 p.m. Friday "while the deputy on duty was temporarily out of the housing unit." The office said the inmates were returned to their cells one hour later when deputies "wearing protective gear entered the pod through a fire exit."
The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the public interest law firm that represents Orleans Parish prisoners in the lawsuit that prompted federal oversight of the jail, has requested surveillance videos showing what happened.
Washington, a lawyer with the MacArthur firm, wrote in a letter Sunday to Gary Maynard, the independent compliance director appointed last year to oversee the jail, that it appeared the inmates were able to escape from their holding areas because of a "complete lack of adequate or mandated supervision on the tier over the course of several hours."
For an hour Friday night, 12 inmates held in the Orleans Justice Center barricaded themselve…
After interviewing inmates, Washington said, it was her understanding that the incidents actually started at 1 p.m., when a prisoner threatened for over an hour to jump from the mezzanine of his tier.
From there, Washington said, prisoners gained access to a Sheriff's Office-issued radio and then to the computerized door controls, allowing other prisoners to leave their cells.
The situation deteriorated to the point where there were "one or more fights resulting in prisoner injury without medical attention," as well as "a fire or multiple fires" requiring the New Orleans Fire Department to respond, Washington said.
Further, the attorney wrote, when sheriff's deputies did gain control of the inmates, the operation involved "possible deployment of pellet guns, striking of prisoners with batons and other devices, and physical force."
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The Sheriff's Office said in its releases that as the deputies entered the unit, they knocked over a food cart, striking an inmate in the head. That inmate and four others "with minor injuries" were taken to the jail's medical clinic for evaluation, the office said.
According to Washington's letter, inmates received "numerous lacerations, bruises, reopened sutures and swelling as a result of the force used by members of the Sheriff's Office."
Washington said she was further concerned that the incident occurred in an area created as a special tier for maximum-security prisoners, inmates who had previously been housed on a mental-health tier and those being given disciplinary actions.
"That OPSO would leave such a tier completely unsupervised and would lose control of that unit for hours is inexcusable," Washington wrote.
"But what is also deeply troubling is the representations that OPSO made to the public, indicating that the matter was short-lived, not significant, of little harm to the men in OPSO's custody, and easily and properly handled. That is inconsistent with everything we have learned of the situation," she added.
The attorney also said her office was denied access to its clients on the day of the incident.
A spokesman for the Sheriff's Office said Sunday that Friday's events and the MacArthur firm's allegations were "under investigation and we cannot comment."
There were about 600 inmates in the jail at the time of the incident, about half its capacity. Hundreds of inmates had been sent recently to other parishes and tiers had been consolidated, supposedly to improve supervision and to allow deputies time to undergo training that will put them in line for a $6,000 boost in their annual salary.
The higher pay is expected to help the Sheriff's Office recruit new guards and curb the high turnover rate that experts say has slowed reform at the jail.
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The incident occurred nearly four years after a federal judge approved a sweeping consent decree meant to reform unconstitutional conditions at the New Orleans jail.
The consent decree became official after U.S. District Judge Lance Africk signed it in 2013. For decades, the city's jail complex had been notorious for inmate deaths and suicides, widespread violence, inadequate mental health care and frequent escapes.
Federal experts have called for increased staffing and training, among other things.
Gusman has long lamented what he's called inadequate funding for his facility, and he has insisted his team has made great progress toward reaching court-ordered reforms.
But the experts assigned by the court to monitor the jail have noted slow progress, even after the opening of a new, $150 million jail in 2015.
Africk in June decided to appoint a compliance director to oversee day-to-day operations of the jail, taking that control away from Gusman. Maynard, who has nearly four decades of experience in four states' correctional systems, was chosen.
Experts testified in September that conditions at the facility remained "unacceptable," noting frequent inmate-on-inmate assaults and the poor inmate-to-guard ratio.
In her letter, Washington said the Sheriff's Office has long maintained "a culture of downplaying and denial" about problems inside the facility.
"Your appointment ... was to usher in a new era of transparency, public accountability and reform," Washington wrote to Maynard. "The public representations surrounding this incident cause great alarm for us as representatives of the prisoners in the jail. Unless OPSO is forthcoming about what went wrong in this incident, it will surely be repeated."