New Orleans jail officials are doing better in serving ill inmates, federal monitors said Tuesday, but continuing violence within the jail and a lack of accountability measures — as well as a looming deadline to build a temporary mental-health facility — suggest much more progress needs to be made.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk and lead federal monitor Margo Frasier said at a court hearing that they saw signs of improvement inside the jail, which has been under federal oversight since officials signed a reform agreement with inmate advocates and the U.S. Justice Department in 2013.
Deputies are being trained on how to deal with drugs withdrawal and detoxification, and Tulane University doctors have been brought in to provide some mental-health services. Dr. Robert Greifinger, a prison health care expert, said he saw “substantial and measurable improvement” on his most recent tour.
But Africk warned that crucial issues remain unaddressed. And he noted that the impending construction of a multimillion-dollar temporary mental health facility and its permanent replacement will be a major test for the Sheriff’s Office and Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
“The last compliance report is the best report this court has seen since this litigation began," said Africk, referring to a March progress report. "It’s clear that significant progress is being made … but we do have a ways to go."
When Africk and Frasier toured the jail last month, they found a boy sitting in a dark cell in the youth tier. The frightened teen told them the light bulb had been out for days. Deputies installed a new one in minutes. But leaving a boy in the dark for days demonstrated how the jail must do a better job moving forward, Frasier said.
“There has to be action plans, audits,” said Frasier, a former sheriff in Texas. “The self-criticism needs to be there, the accountability.”
Until the March report, reports on the jail from monitors had focused on staffing shortages, rampant inmate violence, frequent suicide attempts and endemic drug abuse. The monitors said all of those problems still exist, but others are finally being tamped down.
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Medical and mental health care, once recurring sore spots, have finally been improved over the past year, according to Frasier’s team of monitors.
About half of the deputies working at the jail have now received training on detoxification and withdrawal, whereas on past visits none had been trained.
The jail has also added Tulane School of Medicine department of psychiatry doctors to provide mental health services. Dr. Raymond Patterson, the mental health monitor, said the Tulane psychiatrists had significantly improved the assessments the jail makes of inmates when they first arrive.
However, Patterson struck a similar note as Frasier about the jail’s failure to analyze incidents and mistakes. He said he had received inaccurate data about the number of individual counseling sessions inmates receive. Meanwhile, there seems to be no review of the reasons for spikes in suicide attempts.
Frasier said she saw a similar pattern of poor analysis of incidents involving deputies’ use of force on inmates and violence between inmates.
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In 2018, the jail disclosed 442 inmate-on-inmate assaults and 260 uses of force by staff. The monitors’ report did not compare those statistics to prior years.
Despite a push to write reports on more incidents, Frasier said punishment is still spotty for late or missing reports from guards and supervisors.
During the hearing, Africk and the monitors saved their most pointed comments for Cantrell’s administration.
Under state law, the city is responsible for providing the Sheriff’s Office with its facilities. The jail’s reform agreement requires it to provide appropriate facilities for inmates who suffer from mental health problems, but plans for a dedicated building have been stalled for years.
In February, the Mayor’s Office seemed to waffle on whether it wanted to create a new building, as Africk prefers, or to renovate part of the existing Orleans Justice Center, as some prison reformers advocated. Officials estimated that a temporary housing project would cost $4.5 million to $5 million.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has hired a new chief of corrections from Atlanta, filling a crucial post that was vacant for nearly a year.
The judge responded the next month by ordering the city to “immediately” begin renovating an existing building to house mental health inmates on a temporary basis.
City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf said Tuesday that the administration hopes to have the temporary building renovated by March 2020 and the permanent one finished by June 2022.
Africk said all the parties involved in the renovation and construction effort need to work together. He likened the process to inspecting a car’s brakes and motors before buying it.
“The city’s interested in saving money, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the money can’t be saved at the expense of not having a constitutional jail,” Africk said.
The hearing also provided a window into the corrections philosophy of Darnley Hodge Sr., a longtime jail administrator in Virginia who served as a monitor in New Orleans before Africk installed him as the jail’s independent compliance director in February 2018.
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Hodge is the second jail compliance director, a position created by court order in 2016 that essentially sidelined longtime Sheriff Marlin Gusman after years of critical reports on conditions at the jail.
Gusman was present at Tuesday's hearing but did not speak. Hodge weighed in after monitor Patricia Hardyman said she still sees problems with how the jail separates inmates to avoid gang fights or personal disputes. The jail’s classification specialists too often override recommended placements in order to quickly send inmates to an intake tier upon booking, she said.
Hodge said he would comply with Hardyman’s recommendations, but he bristled at the idea that inmates need to be divided into finely tuned categories.
Hodge also rejected the notion expressed by several monitors that the jail does not examine its missteps. But his response raised eyebrows as he seemed to suggest that he may be considering leaving his post.
“We do conduct critical analysis of every single incident,” he said. “I don’t want to leave this organization in a few months and things regress back to whatever.”
That prompted Africk to reassure Hodge about the positive improvements observed in the latest monitors’ report.
“When you say, ‘when you leave this organization in a few months,’ you really don’t mean that,” Africk said. “When I leave, you leave, not before.”
After the hearing, Hodge said he has no immediate plans to depart and hopes to see the jail reforms through to their end.