Conditions in New Orleans jails have remained so deplorable for so long that it is time for a formal system of citizen oversight of the city's lockup, a Loyola University law professor argues in a new essay.

Local inmates have been exposed to dangerous conditions ever since Bienville, New Orleans' founder, built the town's first jail in 1721, Andrea Armstrong says in a report written for the Data Center’s observation of the New Orleans tricentennial.

While there are no enslaved black inmates forced to work on chain gangs these days, Armstrong notes that it is still overwhelmingly people of color who are imprisoned in the Orleans Justice Center, which opened in 2015.

“A more systemic approach is needed, one that gives the community a direct role in the administration of the jail,” Armstrong says.

The report is part of a series from the Data Center that invites local authors to weigh in on how history has contributed to modern-day racial disparities in the city.

In her essay, Armstrong traces the long and sordid story of jails in New Orleans.

"A historical account of the jail is important to understand the centuries of inhumane conditions imposed overwhelmingly on African-American members of our community," she writes. "Written accounts from the 1800s to the present describe dangerous, unsanitary and torturous conditions for Orleans Parish detainees."

After a pair of jails built inside what is known today as the French Quarter, the city constructed a new prison near Congo Square that opened in 1837. Armstrong says that 80 percent of the inmates, who were forced to work, were black. The jail also held "mass whippings, with groups of 30 men at a time being lashed." Many of the inmates were slaves.

Conditions in city jails remained "horrendous" after the end of slavery and even of official segregation a century later, Armstrong says. Cells meant for two people often held six to eight at the notorious Old Parish Prison. Gay people were segregated and allowed only one hour a day out of their cells in 1970.

In 1999, then-Sheriff Charles Foti's deputies still used 50,000-volt stun belts to transport HIV-positive inmates to treatment.

Armstrong also recounts the well-known story of the jail's flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, reforms have cut the jail's population from at least 6,375 inmates to a number that now hovers around 1,500.

Yet the jail's population is still about 80 percent black males, even though they make up less than a third of the city's population between the ages of 15 and 84, Armstrong says.

She expresses pessimism that the new jail building and a reform agreement with the federal government that the Sheriff's Office entered into in 2013 will succeed on their own. She notes that another consent decree was put in place in 1970 after a federal judge found that conditions at the jail "shock the conscience as a matter of elemental decency."

One factor has remained constant throughout the many iterations of the jail, Armstrong says. Although voters of all colors now have a say in who serves as sheriff, ordinary citizens have no role in the day-to-day operations of the jail.

Armstrong suggests creating a body along the lines of the Civilian Oversight Commission of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. She proposes that the group should have the power to accept detainees' complaints or promote community involvement in jail operations.

The board in Los Angeles has not stopped complaints about jail conditions there. After four inmates died over a nine-day stretch last year, protesters blocked traffic and faced off with police. Still, Armstrong says, a similar body in New Orleans would be a start.

She writes: “Through its independence from government, its connection to impacted communities, and its diverse experiences, a community advisory group empowered with the proper tools and policies can articulate the kind of jail that New Orleans should have moving forward.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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