In a year that has seen mass protests over the treatment of African-American men by law enforcement — in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and, most recently, Baltimore, among other places — New Iberia still managed to grab an unwanted moment in the national spotlight.
The town’s brief close-up stemmed from the March 2014 death of Victor White III, 22, from a gunshot wound he suffered while handcuffed in the back of an Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office cruiser.
In August, amid the turmoil in Ferguson, the Iberia Parish Coroner’s Office made public a report classifying White’s death as a suicide, confirming an earlier finding by the State Police. It was met with incredulity by White’s relatives and others.
The outcry prompted the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Louisiana, which includes Iberia Parish, to take its own look at White’s death. That probe is still pending.
But it’s not the only federal inquiry into possible civil rights abuses by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office. Last week, Sheriff Louis Ackal confirmed to The Advocate that federal authorities have subpoenaed a shocking videotape showing an Iberia Parish corrections officer — since fired — attacking a prone inmate with the help of a police dog in 2012.
Last month, meanwhile, a former deputy pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor federal civil rights charge of using excessive force against a handcuffed man in an unrelated case. And a whistleblower suit filed by a former warden is pending.
Federal investigators also are scrutinizing at least one other incident of possible abuse at the Iberia Parish Jail, according to sources with knowledge of the investigations, suggesting a broader probe of the Sheriff’s Office. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this story. An FBI spokesman said the bureau investigates all deaths of inmates or detainees that include claims of police misconduct but declined further comment.
Every police agency, of course, faces allegations of use of excessive force and questions over in-custody deaths. In New Orleans, for instance, both the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office are under federal consent decrees that require major, costly reforms after a slew of well-documented abuses.
The Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office has gotten far less scrutiny, perhaps partly because it’s outside any major media market. But a review by The Advocate of court filings, public records, autopsy reports and investigative files suggests it is a troubled agency and has been for years.
More than 30 civil lawsuits have been filed against the Sheriff’s Office in federal and state courts since Ackal, a former State Police captain, took office in 2008. At least six people, including five inmates, have died in Sheriff’s Office custody during that time. Documents examined by The Advocate — including complaints filed by inmates and settled civil lawsuits — allege a wide array of misconduct by Sheriff’s Office employees, ranging from excessive force used in routine arrests to an inmate beating that was so savage that guards slipped and fell in the victim’s blood.
Some of the complaints appear to have had merit. According to records provided by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, which insures the Sheriff’s Office, the office has settled with at least 10 plaintiffs since 2008, with payments totaling nearly $1.1 million.
By comparison, Lafayette Parish has a population about three times that of Iberia Parish and its Sheriff’s Office employs almost three times as many people as Iberia’s. But the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office’s lawsuit settlement costs since 2008 are about half those for Iberia Parish.
The suits in both parishes include complaints of excessive force, improper medical care of inmates and inmate deaths, sexual assault and harassment, and wrongful termination.
“There does seem to be a pattern of violence perpetuated upon the public in general, whether they are inmates or non-inmates, by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU’s Louisiana chapter.
Over the years, the ACLU has received dozens of complaints from inmates and families alleging abuse by Iberia Parish deputies, Esman said. The number of complaints stands out, she said, though she could not provide exact figures. “When we see things like that happening repeatedly, then that suggests there’s a problem within the organization,” she said. “It’s not just one rogue person.”
Inmate abuse, deaths
While some of the complaints against the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office allege excessive force during arrests, perhaps the most disturbing of them concern the abuse — and in some cases the deaths — of inmates in the Iberia Parish Jail.
The jail, a series of gray blocks stacked next to fields of inmate-tended vegetables, had a checkered history long before Ackal took office in 2008.
Built in 1990, the jail never had a permanent funding source, forcing parish officials to cobble together operating money from wherever they could. Six years after it was built, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against then-Sheriff Errol Romero — who is now parish president — and Warden Danny David, charging that jail employees regularly used excessive force against inmates, including hog-tying prisoners and binding their mouths with duct tape. The complaint also alleged that officials forced prisoners to sit in restraining chairs for long periods, sometimes in their own excrement.
The suit was the first use of a 1994 law that gave the Justice Department authority to prosecute local law enforcement misconduct. The Sheriff’s Office settled the suit that same year and agreed to no longer use the restraining chair.
The tenure of Sheriff Sid Hebert, who replaced Romero around the time the Justice Department’s suit was filed, also was marked by disturbing allegations.
In 2005, a former inmate alleged that deputies beat him so badly when he was booked into jail that he had to spend two weeks in a hospital. In 2006, Hebert made headlines when his deputies used tear gas on residents celebrating the annual Sugar Cane Festival on Hopkins Street, a mostly black section of New Iberia. Residents said they felt the crackdown had a racial animus.
Hebert pushed through an agreement in which the parish would pay the Sheriff’s Office to maintain and operate the jail. He also opened one of the first work-release programs in the state, charging inmates $24 a day for housing and transportation, while collecting nearly $18 a day per inmate from the state.
By the end of Hebert’s tenure, the power and reach of the Sheriff’s Office had grown. At the time, the New Iberia Police Department’s fortunes were waning. Facing budget shortfalls and a spike in crime, city officials in 2004 merged their Police Department with the Sheriff’s Office, making New Iberia, population 30,000, the largest city in Louisiana without its own police force.
Ackal promised reform
Ackal, with his State Police ré sumé , decided to take on Hebert, presenting himself as a candidate who would professionalize the Sheriff’s Office. In 2008, two weeks after he was sworn in, Ackal held a news conference to show off the dilapidated jail he had inherited: Cameras were broken; control panels for door locks didn’t work.
In a recent interview with The Advocate, Ackal dusted off some old photographs of rusted walls and doors and cracked windows. He said the jail’s former warden, Roberta Boudreaux, had run the facility into the ground.
The first thing he did was scrub the place clean. “It was filthy,” he said. “Nasty. People were getting sick from inside the jail. They had staph. They had mold and all that. We cleaned it up.”
Boudreaux is running against Ackal for sheriff this fall.
Not only was the jail in bad shape, it was crowded. Originally intended to house about 260 inmates, in 2007 the jail held nearly twice that many. Ackal estimated it could cost up to $2 million to fix, but he pledged to do it.
Ackal did make some reforms. He relaunched the jail farm — about 40 acres of okra, potatoes, peppers and other fruits and vegetables. And in a cost-cutting move, he turned over the management of the work-release center to a private company.
But he also cracked down. Taking a cue from Arizona’s notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Ackal ordered pink bedding and uniforms for inmates who broke rules. He banned smoking, implemented a curfew, gave inmates haircuts and required that they remain clean-shaven.
Contraband had been rife throughout the jail, and Ackal ran shakedowns that uncovered weapons, crack pipes, drugs and other items. Several employees who had been complicit in getting the contraband into the jail were fired.
Complaints about overzealousness have dogged the office during Ackal’s tenure. Shortly after he took over as sheriff in 2008, a man alleged that a deputy beat him so badly during an arrest that he coughed up blood — and then a muzzle was put over his mouth. The man later settled a suit with the Sheriff’s Office for $50,000.
The following year, Michael Jones, a 43-year-old mentally ill man from Abbeville, died in the jail after an altercation with then-Warden Frank Ellis and Wesley Hayes, who was then a lieutenant.
This year, a judge ruled two Sheriff’s Office employees — Hayes and a nurse — were responsible for Jones’ death. The judgment in the case is $61,000.
Jones, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, bit Ellis shortly after arriving at the jail. Hayes told a state investigator that he put his arm against Jones’ jaw and his hand over his mouth to restrain him.
At trial this spring, inmates testified that Hayes and his brother, Jesse, sat on Jones. At the time, the brothers, who moonlight as a tag-team wrestling outfit called the Bayou Boys, reportedly weighed a combined 700 pounds.
One inmate told State Police that he saw “tan-colored foam” coming out of Jones’ mouth. After the brothers handcuffed him, they left Jones on his stomach with his hands behind his back, Hayes told an investigator.
When paramedics arrived 15 minutes later, Jones was dead. Although nurse Stephanie Celestine was on duty, she did not check on Jones. Autopsies found no drugs or alcohol in his system.
Warden turned whistleblower
Though Ackal had promoted Hayes to warden not long after Jones died, he announced after the March ruling that he was requesting an FBI investigation of the case.
By then, Hayes was long gone — and he and the sheriff were feuding. Hayes in the fall filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office that alleges Ackal and high-ranking deputies prevented him from investigating misconduct, including the theft of jail property and the abuse of inmates. He also says he was fired for attempting to report misconduct.
Lafayette-based attorney Clayton Burgess, who represents Hayes and who has sued the Sheriff’s Office numerous times, did not make Hayes available for an interview with The Advocate. But he said he thinks his client is being scapegoated.
“It’s very curious that Sheriff Ackal calls for a federal investigation (into Jones’ death) after Wesley Hayes filed his whistleblower suit and after Wesley Hayes verified in an affidavit of other abuses within the jail,” Burgess said.
Two years after Jones’ death, a 62-year-old inmate died from a traumatic brain injury after being struck by an untrained corrections deputy. Around the same time, in spring 2011, according to court filings and a sworn affidavit by Hayes, IPSO officers abused two inmates in the jail’s chapel.
On April 29 of that year, according to Hayes’ affidavit, officers with a new unit called IMPACT — Increased Man Power Addressing Crime Trends — came with Ackal to the jail to assist in a contraband shakedown.
The new unit’s mission was to deploy to high-crime areas and, much like a SWAT team, assist other units during critical situations, such as contraband sweeps in the jail or standoffs in the street.
Former inmate Curtis Ozenne’s suit against the Sheriff’s Office claims officers began the shakedown by forcing him to remain in the “Muslim praying position” for nearly three hours. Ozenne alleged he was kicked in the mouth multiple times, threatened with police dogs and then his head was shaved. In his complaint, Ozenne also alleged that Ackal threatened him with a dog and watched as an officer struck him with a baton for smiling.
Ackal said he could not comment on the suit because of pending litigation involving the incident.
In a sworn affidavit, Hayes testified that Ben Lasalle, a narcotics agent, asked him, as Ackal listened, which rooms in the jail were free of audio or video recording devices. The agent was apparently angry about a remark Ozenne had made. Hayes escorted Lasalle and Ozenne to the jail’s chapel.
Vinyl drapes obscured the windows. There, Lasalle ordered Ozenne to lie facedown as he beat him with a baton, according to the affidavit. Ozenne cried and begged the officer to stop. He pegged another prisoner as the one who made the comments.
Officers brought the other inmate into the chapel, according to Hayes’ affidavit, and Lasalle ordered the prisoner onto his knees. When he learned the inmate was serving time on a sex offense, Hayes testified, Lasalle slipped the baton between his legs and ordered him to simulate oral sex on it as three other officers watched. Hayes said he could hear the inmate choking.
Ozenne did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him. His case against the Sheriff’s Office was later settled for $15,000.
The Advocate was unable to reach Lasalle for comment. The agent, according to Ackal, still works with the Sheriff’s Office.
Jail: Better but still troubled
As the doors to the Iberia Parish Jail swing open, one is struck by the smell — a combination of human sweat and stale air.
In a recent tour, Richard Hazelwood, Ackal’s chief deputy, led The Advocate through the winding halls of the facility, past the curious and hardened faces of its inmates. It is a far cry from the jail shown in the photographs splayed across Ackal’s desk. The walls are freshly painted; special pods keep nonviolent drug offenders and inmate trustees away from the general population.
The jail was not designed to hold so many inmates. The population swings anywhere between 480 and 540 inmates a day, Ackal said. In general population pods, inmates are double-bunked, and many sleep on plastic “boats” on the floor. The “lockdown” pod, a separate unit where inmates are placed in solitary confinement, is painted pink — an attempt by Ackal to further punish problem inmates. The sound of an inmate moaning was audible through the metal doors of the solitary unit.
Although he has managed to bring the Sheriff’s Office out of debt, Ackal said, running the jail remains a huge budgetary challenge. Prisoners from other parishes, for example, bring in only $3.50 a day, Ackal said. “You house, feed, clothe all these people for $3.50 a day, you have to be a magician,” he said.
As in any jail, Sheriff’s Office correctional officers are constantly at odds with inmates who are mentally ill or violent. One inmate shouted obscenities at Hazelwood as he passed by his cell. As deputies escorted the inmate to lockdown, he continued his harangue. “See what we have to deal with?” Hazelwood said.
Other inmates help keep the jail running. Their labor, Ackal said, keeps costs down — and allows others to learn valuable skills. In the auto shop, inmates fix vehicles for six different law enforcement agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office. They build kennels for police dogs and make repairs to the jail using carpentry and welding tools. Behind the jail, inmates in stripes till the land, producing food for the jail and private companies.
That day, inmates were even fixing up a used armored personnel carrier that was obtained recently by the Sheriff’s Office — a tanklike vehicle that might be seen on the streets of Baghdad.
“We’ve got this place back into the condition it’s supposed to be in,” Hazelwood said. “We’re not going to let it slip down again.”
Despite the volume of allegations against his office, Ackal said his jail is little different from any other lockup in the state or the country. The quantity of suits, he added, is partly the result of his honesty about what happens behind bars.
“A lot of these things that happen in other jails are not even publicized,” Ackal said. “I don’t hide anything. I would think that if you were to go to the other jails and ask the same questions, you’d be surprised at what you’d find.”
Ackal touted changes he’s managed to make to the agency and his commitment to professionalism. Sitting behind his desk, the sheriff leaned over and made a fist to show off his two-carat diamond ring and Rolex watch.
“I didn’t take this job for the money,” he said. “I don’t need the money. I don’t need the headache. I don’t need the heartache. But I came in with a commitment, not a promise, to clean this place up and bring it to a level of law enforcement that it would be looked upon with respect.”
Advocate staff writers Jim Mustian and Richard Burgess contributed to this report.