One New Orleans inmate died last week at age 32 with an ulcer. Another dropped dead Sunday at 27 of "apparent natural causes," according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. 

Both deaths so far remain unexplained. And new data show physical attacks at the jail, both among inmates and between inmates and guards, have been on the rise. 

A year after a court-appointed administrator, Gary Maynard, assumed most of Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s duties at the Orleans Justice Center, violence at the lockup remains common, raising questions about whether officials are making any progress in improving conditions. 

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk last year named Maynard, a corrections professional with a record of turning around troubled jails, to carry out a court-ordered reform plan, but the numbers lately have been grim. 

+2 
110817 Inmate fights.jpg

At least six inmates have died — including two from suicide and one from an overdose — since Maynard took over in October 2016.

The Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office said there was no evidence of trauma discovered during the autopsies of the two men who died in the past week, Narada Mealey, 32, and Evan Sullivan, 27. However, an official cause of death for both is still pending.

Inmate-on-inmate attacks rose in September to a level nearly identical to the month Maynard took office. Inmate attacks on guards now surpass those reported last year, according to a quarterly report issued Nov. 1.

Meanwhile, jail leaders have essentially admitted defeat for now in their push to hire enough guards to bring all New Orleans inmates back from far-flung jails in other parts of the state, although the number being housed elsewhere has been reduced from several hundred to fewer than 100.

A Sheriff’s Office spokesman said Maynard and other top jail officials were not available for interviews about the state of the jail. However, inmate advocates said the latest deaths are emblematic of the jail's continuing struggles.

Emily Washington, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, said conditions at the jail are "dire and worsening."

"The jail remains an extraordinarily dangerous place for the men, women and kids held there,” she said. 

Perhaps most alarming to advocates were the deaths of Mealey and Sullivan, which happened three days apart. Although jail investigators do not suspect foul play in either case, what little is known about their deaths raises questions about the care they received in the jail.

Mealey, 32, was booked into the jail on Oct. 27. Court records suggest he was wanted for failing to pay court fees in connection with a misdemeanor marijuana conviction in Jefferson Parish in February.

Family members said Mealey had six children and cared for his ailing mother. He began complaining almost from the moment he arrived at the jail that his longstanding stomach ulcer was acting up, according to his sister, Isrealy Mealey, 28.

“All day (Oct. 28), he was constantly calling me stating that his stomach was hurting,” she said.

On the night of Oct. 28, or early on Oct. 29, she received more urgent calls from her brother, she said.

She said her brother told her, “They’re not doing anything for me. They’re not giving me medical attention. They’re just ignoring me.”

According to Isrealy Mealey, she went to the jail early on Oct. 29 and asked to speak to someone in charge. A woman who spoke with her claimed she had not received any complaints from her brother but promised to get him help, she said.

The Sheriff’s Office said Mealey was examined by medical personnel that day and then taken to the hospital. He died at University Medical Center on Thursday.

Coroner’s Office investigators have not determined an official cause of death for him pending toxicology tests, according to a news release issued Tuesday. However, an autopsy did reveal “a pyloric ulcer with evidence of recent surgical repair,” according to the coroner.

The surgical repair could be consistent with treatment for Mealey after his transfer to the hospital.

His sister is convinced that he could have been saved if he had been taken there sooner.

“It was just wrong," she said. "They should have just given him medical assistance when he first complained about it. They could have prevented all of this from happening." 

The Sheriff’s Office itself has given no details about the circumstances preceding Mealey’s death and refused to answer questions about whether he asked for a doctor, citing an ongoing internal investigation.

There are also unanswered questions about Sullivan, who was serving a 90-day stint.

In August, Sullivan pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated battery, two counts of second-degree battery and seven counts of simple criminal damage to property. On Sunday, he was discovered in distress in his cell in the jail’s Temporary Detention Center. Deputies said that after an evaluation they took him to the hospital, where he died of “apparent natural causes.”

However, the Coroner’s Office has not made a final determination of its own. The coroner said Tuesday that Sullivan had “significant pulmonary edema,” or excessive fluid in his lungs. As with Mealey, his official cause of death remains under investigation.

Sullivan’s defense attorney, Joseph Bartels, said he didn’t know of any health problems on Sullivan’s part that would have led to pulmonary edema. He said he is waiting on the jail's investigation to find out what led to Sullivan's death.

“No matter how this gentleman may have died, I would not consider pulmonary edema to be of natural causes; it has to be secondary to something,” Bartels said.

The latest two inmate deaths follow four others that have happened under the jail's new administrator.

In July, 40-year-old inmate Jason Pierce died from “widespread red blood cell sickling due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease and sickle cell trait,” the coroner said. 

In May, 23-year-old Jermaine Johnson died at the hospital after hanging himself in his jail cell.

Colby Crawford, 23, died of a cocaine overdose from drugs he ingested inside the jail in February, according to authorities.

In October 2016, the first month that Maynard was on the job, 15-year-old Jaquin Thomas died after hanging himself in his jail cell. 

The inmate advocates responsible for the lawsuit that brought the jail under a federal consent decree say the recent deaths are troubling. 

"There are many questions that OPSO should be called to answer about the deaths of Mr. Mealey and Mr. Sullivan," Washington said. "We are concerned that these most recent deaths resulted from the same dangerous lack of medical and mental health care, as well as completely unsafe and insufficient supervision."

Although court-appointed monitors said earlier this year that the jail had “regressed” on Maynard’s watch, the judge overseeing the reform plan has been less critical. In an unusual rebuke to his monitors at a court hearing in June, Africk said the jail was on the “right track.”

Still, the judge appears to be keeping a close watch on inmate deaths and health care. In October, he ordered the Sheriff’s Office to provide him with monthly updates on steps taken to prevent inmate suicides.

The judge also asked the jail’s health care provider, Correct Care Solutions, to work with the city to “evaluate systemic medical and mental health care issues at the Orleans Justice Center, and propose an action plan to address those issues.” The plan is due Dec. 8.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432