New Orleans jail hearing: Expert offers shocking testimony on ‘incredibly frequent’ violence at troubled facility _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Sheriff Marlin Gusman checks his watch for the start of press conference before the first Orleans Parish Prison buses transport prisoners to the new $150 million parish prison built in part with FEMA money in New Orleans, La. Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

A federal judge Thursday ordered Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman to change his procedures for shuttling inmates between the new jail and the Criminal District Court building, describing the current method as a “clear and present danger” for both inmates and the witnesses and victims they could encounter outside of courtrooms.

For all of the benefits of opening a new, $150 million jail on Perdido Street last month, the closing of Old Parish Prison quickly complicated the daily logistics of getting inmates to court hearings, as Gusman simultaneously shuttered a dilapidated holding area in the lockup known as “the docks” that connected the jail to the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street.

Conditions within the docks posed a host of hazards to inmates and deputies, who found themselves outnumbered, isolated from backup and without radio communication while walking through the now-vacant building. But makeshift alternatives have disrupted proceedings at the court and have rankled judges, who complained that witnesses and jurors could come into contact with inmates as they walk through main hallways of the courthouse open to the public.

Judge Franz Zibilich, perhaps the most outspoken of the critics, voiced emphatic concerns Thursday in U.S. District Court, where Judge Lance Africk is overseeing a series of jail reforms that stemmed from a landmark class-action lawsuit over conditions at the jail.

Zibilich described a logistical “nightmare” that has followed the closing of the docks and warned of the potential for inmates to escape or, in traversing unprotected areas outside the courthouse, to fall victim to something as disastrous as an AK-47 assault.

“Instead of walking within the confines of the prison complex, they’re actually walking out almost into the street so that they gain access to the courthouse,” Zibilich said during a rare stint on the witness stand. “There would be nothing whatsoever to stop an ambush, if you will.”

James Williams, an attorney for Gusman, grilled Zibilich in what amounted to a cross-examination, pointing out that the Sheriff’s Office had proposed a number of additional security measures — such as screening off inmate entrances and directing inmates through the old Coroner’s Office at Tulane and Broad — that weren’t approved by the Criminal District Court judges.

Africk, bemoaning the hostility between city leaders and Gusman that has slowed the jail reforms, took swift action, giving the sheriff a week to reopen the docks. He ordered Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which under state law must pay for inmate care, to cover the costs of any additional staffing needed to bolster security in the holding area.

“A significant concern to this court is the fact that inmates and the public often know when inmates are to appear in court, which presents a significant risk of harm when they are exposed to public view,” Africk said. “A victim of a sexual assault should not run the risk of seeing the accused prior to the victim’s testimony.”

Later in the hearing, Africk heard an update from Susan McCampbell, a court-appointed jail expert, on an apparent decrease in inmate violence at the new jail. Although attacks are still occurring, they appear to be less severe than the incidents seen on a near-daily basis at Orleans Parish Prison, she said.

McCampbell also reported on the state of affairs at two jails in northeastern Louisiana that are housing nearly 200 of the city’s pretrial inmates. Gusman, insisting there aren’t enough beds in the new jail, transferred those detainees last month, angering defense attorneys and the Landrieu administration, which had asked the sheriff to first return several hundred state prisoners to the Department of Corrections.

McCampbell, who is overseeing the jail reforms in New Orleans, recently visited the lockups in Franklin and East Carroll parishes and interviewed dozens of inmates about the conditions there, which must comport with the terms of a federal consent decree Gusman has signed with inmate advocates and the U.S. Justice Department.

She came away with no concerns about the operation of the facilities, she said, and noted the state Department of Corrections houses some 1,600 prisoners in those parishes and maintains “active oversight.”

“We had a number of inmates come up to us and say, ‘We like the food better here. We’d just rather stay,’ ” McCampbell said.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.