'Why would I deal with inmates for $11.91 an hour?' Gusman aide blames low pay for problems at troubled jail _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Inmates look out onto the Pontchartrain expressway from the new Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans in September.

For an hour Friday night, 12 inmates held in the Orleans Justice Center barricaded themselves inside a fourth-floor "disciplinary unit," jail officials said, noting that the incident began about 8 p.m., “while the deputy on duty was temporarily out of the housing units.”

An official statement said the stand-off ended about 9 p.m. when deputies got into the housing unit through a fire exit "and directed inmates back to their cells."

But as deputies in protective gear entered the unit, they knocked over a food cart, striking an inmate in the head, the statement said. That inmate and four others "with minor injuries" were taken to the jail's medical clinic for evaluation.

The Sheriff's Office said Saturday that the inmates involved may face additional charges.

"The incident is being investigated by the Investigative Services Bureau of the Sheriff’s Office. Depending on the results of that investigation, additional charges will be filed," a statement said.

“It is not yet clear why inmates chose to barricade the disciplinary unit, where they were serving sentences for previous misconduct charges. Most were classified as maximum security inmates."

The incident set off red flags for some recent inmates. They questioned whether the incident was as brief as portrayed, claiming that deputies often leave inmates unsupervised for hours at a time.

“This incident should really expose how understaffed they are at the jail,” said Glend Ford, 42, a diabetic who spent time in the jail a few years ago on drug-possession charges that ultimately were dropped. Recently, he was arrested on an old warrant and stayed in the jail’s fourth-floor medical unit until the warrant was resolved.

Under the federal consent decree that governs the jail's operation, guards are supposed to be on each tier the entire time. But Ford never saw that happen. “The deputies are on the tiers for a few hours, then they switch to another tier for a few hours,” he said, describing how he routinely saw deputies come in, make notations in the book that they use to file reports, then look around and leave, often for hours at a stretch.

Since last fall, the scandal-plagued jail has been under the operational control of independent administrator Gary Maynard.

Last month, Maynard announced that the jail would temporarily move several hundred inmates to other parishes to allow guards to earn training certification — and a pay boost. That’s been a long-contested point, with Sheriff Marlin Gusman arguing that he couldn’t hire or keep enough deputies with the wages he can pay.

Some of those familiar with the jail said Maynard has issued some new policies but can’t implement many of them without more deputies.

Staffing gaps make violence at the jail almost inevitable, Ford said. “Say that me and another guy have a beef from the street. I’ll wait until the deputy leaves the tier and hit the computer and pop open your cell,” he said.

“Tiers where there is a lot of violence, they pretty much know the schedule of the deputies,” Ford said. “Once the deputy leaves, the inmates do what they do.”

In Friday's incident, what stood out for Ford was the presence of a meal cart. Because the cart is metal, it could be used as a weapon, so it’s supposed to be sent back to the kitchen after each meal.

The last meal of the day is served at 4 p.m. So if the meal cart remained when the incident began at 8 p.m., that meant the deputy could have been absent for nearly four hours. “Guards have to be present for each and every feed-up,” Ford said. “But most of the time, guards will call the roll, feed up, then leave the cart in there and remove it when they get back.”

The absences are routine, Ford said. “They happen every day. They happened before the transition to the independent administrator, and they continue to happen since then. Nothing has changed except the person in charge.”