The corrections expert monitoring conditions at the city’s new jail told a federal judge Thursday that parts of the facility should be closed — and the inmates relocated — until deputies can be properly trained to operate the $150 million building.
“It’s a hard recommendation to make, but if it were up to us, we would close the facility floor by floor until it can be successfully operated,” the expert, Susan McCampbell, told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.
“We’re really regressing to what should have happened in September (when the building opened) to make this a safe and secure environment.”
McCampbell, who has been appointed to monitor the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office’s compliance with a series of court-ordered jail reforms, recommended that Sheriff Marlin Gusman implement “aggressive, well thought-out and evidence-based training on how to run a direct-supervision facility,” citing a level of jailhouse violence she described as unacceptable.
Inmates continue to attack one another — and deputies — in the Orleans Justice Center at an alarming rate, she said.
McCampbell credited the Sheriff’s Office for undertaking a “substantial amount of work” over the past month and noted that the new jail “looks cleaner” than it did a month earlier. But the “bad news,” she said, is “the level of violence, which shouldn’t be happening at all in a direct-supervision facility.”
“Our view is that, generally, there is insufficient staff in the building who are insufficiently trained and supervised,” she added.
McCampbell’s remarks came during one of the periodic hearings that Africk holds to receive updates on conditions at the jail.
Her comments were starkly at odds with the sheriff’s take on progress at the lockup. This week, Gusman delivered a State of the Sheriff’s Office address in which he claimed violence at the jail “has decreased dramatically.”
It was not immediately clear whether the Sheriff’s Office plans to shutter any portion of the new jail, and Africk did not make any ruling after the morning of testimony.
However, he said the status of the jail has raised questions about whether the Sheriff’s Office will ever be capable of meeting the requirements of a consent decree Gusman signed three years ago with the Justice Department and a group of inmate advocates who had filed a class-action lawsuit over jail conditions.
Laura Coon, a Justice Department attorney, said the government and the Sheriff’s Office are “not on the same page” as to what steps are needed to improve conditions at the jail. “At this point, I would anticipate seeking intervention from the court in the coming weeks,” she said.
Nearly 400 New Orleans inmates already have been transferred to jails in northeastern Louisiana because of staffing shortages and a lack of beds at the new facility. Those inmates are being housed out of the parish at a cost of $30 a day per inmate.
Africk also heard testimony from a mental health expert who raised new concerns about a suicide in the jail last month in which a bipolar inmate hanged himself inside a shower facility.
The inmate, Cleveland Tumblin, a 63-year-old boxing instructor, had been booked days earlier on counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, illegal use of a weapon and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The mental health expert, Dr. Raymond Patterson, said the shower door had been locked from the inside, a security concern he said the Sheriff’s Office should have addressed months ago. “I have never seen that anywhere in 35 years of practice,” Patterson said of locks on the inside of jail shower doors.
Patterson, who has reviewed more than 500 jailhouse suicides across the country, said a nurse ultimately crawled under the door and cut the inmate down with her shears. Jail staff members apparently had been unaware their own “cut-down tools” were so dull that Patterson, in a recent test, “couldn’t cut paper” with them.
Tumblin should have undergone further mental health evaluations upon being booked, Patterson said. “There are ways to manage this, and it’s very disheartening for all of us as monitors,” he told the judge.
Patterson recently toured the part of the jail where Tumblin took his life and said he found “no officer present on the unit.”
“What was explained to us,” he added, “was that the officer was at lunch.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.