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.

The corrections expert monitoring a federal reform effort at the city’s jail has raised concerns that an off-duty details program may be hampering Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s efforts to maintain order at the newly opened Orleans Justice Center.

The expert, Susan McCampbell, said in a recent letter to Gusman that the moonlighting shifts have made it difficult to gauge staffing efficiency at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which has cited a shortage of deputies as grounds for shipping hundreds of local inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana.

McCampbell, who was appointed to oversee a consent decree between Gusman and the federal government, toured the lockup last month and reported that officials were “unable to answer the question of whether there are currently sufficient staff to operate” the facility.

Deputies have struggled to keep order in the new jail, where violence among inmates seems to be as common as it was in the notorious Orleans Parish Prison, which was closed last year.

“A barrier to assessing the adequacy of OPSO’s staffing is the matter of off-duty details and the extent to which employees are missing work assignments and/or are unavailable for overtime while working these details,” McCampbell wrote in the Feb. 22 letter.

McCampbell requested copies of the Sheriff’s Office’s “policies and procedures governing secondary employment,” as well as documentation of all details that deputies worked between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15.

The details program has drawn an increasing amount of scrutiny in recent years. The New Orleans Advocate reported in 2014 that the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office was investigating the program amid a wider inquiry into Sheriff’s Office finances — an audit that remains ongoing.

The Sheriff’s Office has argued that the off-duty details provide badly needed extra income for poorly paid deputies. It has complained that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has refused to approve raises for the deputies.

In her letter, McCampbell also repeated concerns that some so-called “use of force” incidents involving deputies and some episodes of violence “are not being reported” by jail officials, and that “first-line supervisors, watch commanders and facility leadership are not conducting complete preliminary investigations” into crimes committed behind bars.

“We are also concerned that deputies who are under review for questionable uses of force are allowed to continue to have contact with inmates during the investigation, which is inappropriate and dangerous in our view,” McCampbell wrote.

The 2013 consent decree, triggered by a class-action lawsuit filed by inmates, was intended to overhaul violent and unsanitary conditions at the jail. The Sheriff’s Office has made progress in some areas but has not fulfilled the vast majority of the consent decree’s requirements.

McCampbell’s latest letter revealed that the jail still lacks a medical director and a behavioral health director — positions considered critical to the mandate that Gusman improve inmate health care services for inmates.

City leaders have been trying to replace a five-year, $83 million contract that Gusman awarded in 2014 to Correct Care Solutions to provide health care at the jail. But the bickering between Gusman and City Hall over the price tag has apparently made it more difficult for the Sheriff’s Office to recruit medical professionals.

The uncertainty surrounding the contract, McCampbell wrote, “is crippling services to inmates and undermining the achievement or compliance with the (consent decree), which is unacceptable.”

While the jail opened less than six months ago, cleanliness already has become an issue, according to McCampbell. “There is insufficient routine cleaning of housing units,” she wrote. “This poses a threat to the health of inmates and staff.”

The consent decree does not specifically address food service, but the court-appointed monitors nevertheless expressed concerns about the meals served in the jail. Inmates have complained about the quality, quantity and temperature of the food.

“We also have identified coordination issues regarding medically ordered diets and religious diets,” McCampbell wrote. “As we know, food is often a flashpoint for disorder in correctional facilities. The inmates’ constant complaints to staff about food make management of the inmates difficult, and potentially compromise safety and security.”

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