Orleans jail

The Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, La. Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

With an inmate death rate four times the national average, the New Orleans jail is “critically unsafe” and staffing is “critically inadequate," according to a withering report released Thursday by federal monitors. 

The report finds that conditions have actually improved “marginally” since the last report from the court-appointed watchdogs 10 months ago. Yet page after page of the lengthy report details how monitors found entire units left unguarded on unannounced visits and discovered during reviews of medical logs that hundreds of alarming incidents had gone unreported.

Inmates on mental health watch manage to ingest pills or attempt suicide by hanging, and fights often erupt as guards leave their posts for lunch, the report found. Meanwhile, 44 percent of jail employees were fired or quit their jobs in 2017.

The jail administration led by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and compliance director Gary Maynard is living in a state of denial or ignorance, the report finds.

An early intervention system that is supposed to track problem deputies does not work. Jail officials cannot say how often inmates attack each other or how often guards are making their rounds. Administrators have also failed to examine the root causes of violence and deaths at the jail.

Gusman and Maynard both sounded upbeat about the state of the jail at a public meeting on Jan. 11 that drew only a handful of attendees. However, they will face another hearing before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk on Jan. 29.

A jail spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new monitors' report.

The monitors’ review is the first to be released since Africk replaced corrections expert Susan McCampbell as lead monitor with former Travis County, Texas, Sheriff Margo Frasier. The report is dated Jan. 12, but it was not entered into the court record until Thursday.

Africk is overseeing the jail’s reform agreement with the federal government, called a consent judgment. That document was signed in 2013 as a result of the same kinds of violence, inmate deaths and lack of mental health care detailed in the most recent report.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office "has been operating under the provisions of the consent judgment for more than four years,” the monitors say in their new report. “Improvements have been made during that time, but vital, urgent work is required to comply with the provisions of the consent judgment in order to bring and sustain the OPSO facilities and operations to constitutional standards. Currently the environment is not safe for inmates or staff.”

A multitude of problems are noted in the report.

A spate of six inmate deaths in 12 months has sent the jail’s death rate soaring to more than four times the national average. U.S. jails average 137 deaths per 100,000 inmates, but the New Orleans facility has had a rate of 616 deaths per 100,000 inmates over the last year.

The Sheriff’s Office files reports on suicides, riots and fights, yet it has failed to analyze them in a systemic way that might prevent future incidents. The jail has not conducted an annual review of jail guards’ use of force that is required by the consent judgment.

Although recent Sheriff’s Office reports have minimized the number of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff attacks, the report says that such incidents remain rampant, occurring at a rate that indicates “an unacceptable and dangerous environment” in the jail.

Jail clinic logs indicate that about 300 inmate fights, suicide attempts and other incidents of “trauma” were not reported to the jail monitors — as is supposed to happen — between Sept. 1 and Dec. 15. The incidents included uses of pepper spray, head injuries, ingested pills and swallowed heroin.

During the same period, the jail also failed to report 58 trips to hospital emergency rooms that included trauma to eyes, fractured hands, facial cuts, blunt head trauma, cut lips, orbital fractures, cut ear lobes, facial bruises, shoulder dislocation, blunt trauma to the face, fractured hand bones and a head injury.

Care for the jail’s average caseload of 160 inmates with mental health problems — about 10 percent of its population — remains inadequate, the monitors said. Counseling services are sparse, psychotropic medications are often delayed, and the jail’s protocol for suicide watch is a failure, according to the report.

Even after an inmate’s hanging death in May, and the high-profile hanging death of a 15-year-old inmate in 2016, the jail’s precautions against self-harm are weak. Guards have not been tested on suicide prevention training, a tool to cut down nooses was missing in five of six control pods, and nurses were not keeping an eye on inmates on suicide watch during a recent tour, the report said.

Jail officials claimed a net gain of 28 staffers in 2017. Yet the hiring process remains troubled, and employee turnover continues at an alarming rate, the report said.

Of the 281 people who left their jobs at the jail in 2017, 50 percent had been hired since the start of the year. The jail has an “annualized attrition rate” of 44 percent. Almost a quarter of staffers leave their jobs by simply failing to show up for work.

The monitors also raised concerns about the training that new deputies receive. They said new guards receive little practical skills training. They also questioned whether all new employees are physically able to walk through the jail and restrain troublesome inmates.

Once the guards are on the job, they are short of extra help and may be shirking their duties, the monitors said.

On one recent unannounced visit to the jail, a monitor found four housing units missing staffers. The jail was also short a first-line supervisor, four relief deputies, a watch commander and two staffers in housing unit control centers, and there was a complete absence of lieutenants.

All of the technicians assigned to monitor video cameras had gone on lunch break at the same time.

On one tour of the jail, supervisors were confused about who was supposed to be working and who actually was working, the monitors said.

The monitors said that jail officials bought an expensive system called TourWatch that tracks when guards press buttons on their rounds through the jail pods. Yet the monitors said the buttons are rarely pressed, and watch commanders do not actually have real-time access to the computer program.

The jail’s much-touted video surveillance system is also shoddy. An unknown number of the facility’s 700 cameras fail to record at random times, hampering investigations into inmate attacks. The jail administration, which blames faulty wiring, has been unable to resolve the problem since at least March.

The monitors also said that inadequate shakedowns — or searches of inmates’ cells — may have contributed to recent drug overdoses. One inmate died of a heroin overdose in November, another of a cocaine overdose in February, and four inmates had to be revived from opioid overdoses in December.

Frasier said that while she watched one shakedown in November, jail guards “seemed unclear as to how to conduct a proper shakedown and did not follow the instructions given by the (Internal Services Bureau) supervisor.”

The jail also seems to make little effort to identify the sources of the contraband that guards confiscate, which included shanks, a razor, nail clippers, unauthorized clothing, medication, cigarettes and a crack pipe in the first six months of 2017.

One of the few bright spots in the report was the Sheriff’s Office's internal investigative division. The monitors said that it is in “substantial compliance” with the consent judgment’s requirements for investigations of jail incidents. The biggest challenge the jail’s investigators face is their heavy workload, the monitors said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.