Orleans jail

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

When a 27-year-old Navy veteran died inside the New Orleans jail in November, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office said he died of apparent natural causes.

The truth was something quite different, according to an autopsy completed by the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office on Jan. 9. Evan Sullivan actually died of causes that included heroin intoxication.

Sullivan was at least the second inmate to die of drug-related causes in the Sheriff’s Office's custody in 2017. A third inmate, 41-year-old Dennis Edwards, died while he was detoxing at the jail in December, but his official cause of death has yet to be determined.

Sullivan had been in the jail for months before he died inside the Temporary Detention Center, a separate facility from the main Orleans Justice Center, so he could not have ingested the drugs before he was locked up.

Inmate advocates say that Sullivan’s death raises fresh questions about the ability of court-appointed jail administrator Gary Maynard to control the facilities.

Inmate deaths at New Orleans jail highlight grim, ongoing problems under new administrator

“Director Maynard and the Sheriff’s Office are hiding the true state of crisis at the Orleans Parish jail from the public,” Emily Washington of the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans said in a statement.

“OPSO’s release of information classifying Evan Sullivan's death as ‘apparent natural causes’ is only the latest example. It appears that Director Maynard and OPSO have long been aware that Evan's death was in fact not ‘natural,’ based on preliminary autopsy findings which have now been confirmed.”

The MacArthur Justice Center represents inmates in a federal lawsuit over conditions at the New Orleans lockup that resulted in an ongoing and still-unfulfilled reform agreement with the federal government.

The coroner ruled that Sullivan’s death was the accidental result of a combination of acute aspiration pneumonia and complications of heroin intoxication.

Aspiration pneumonia is a “lung infection caused by inhaling mouth secretions, stomach contents or both,” according to the Merck Manual, a standard textbook on diagnosing illnesses.

In response to questions about Sullivan's death, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman pointed out that officials initially said he died of "apparent" natural causes, and disputed the notion that the agency's press release was misleading.

"The Sheriff’s Office provides the public with the information we reasonably ascertain at the time we issue a press release," spokesman Philip Stelly said in an email. "The information is based on, but is not limited to, a review of video, other inmates’ statements, and staff observations. Obviously, the Sheriff’s Office would not be in a position to determine the exact cause of death prior to the autopsy being conducted."

Sullivan was wearing a U.S. Navy pendant at the time of his death, according to the autopsy report. The Navy confirmed that he served from February 2010 to June 2011. He was last stationed as a hospitalman apprentice at the Navy Branch Health Clinic in Meridian, Mississippi. The circumstances of his departure from the Navy are unclear.

Sullivan’s grandmother declined comment when reached by telephone Wednesday.

Sullivan’s death came during a period in which concerns about contraband at the New Orleans jail have repeatedly burst into public view. In February 2017, 23-year-old inmate Colby Crawford died of a cocaine overdose inside the jail. In November, four inmates had to be revived with an opioid antidote after they overdosed on transport buses and inside the jail.

In December, a Sheriff’s Office deputy admitted to having a sexual relationship with a murder defendant and to smuggling drugs into the jail in exchange for money, investigators said.

Meanwhile, authorities are still probing the Dec. 15 death of Edwards. The Sheriff’s Office said he was being housed in a medical unit where he was on a “detoxification protocol” for opiates just before his death. Edwards had recently been booked into the jail.

And several years ago, a notorious videotape surfaced that showed more than a dozen inmates at the Orleans jail taking drugs, drinking beer fished from a cooler and even flashing a loaded gun at one point. 

All of those incidents raise a fundamental question for the Sheriff’s Office: How do inmates continue to get their hands on drugs and other banned items?

In a report released Thursday, the court-appointed monitors who inspect jail conditions as part of the federal reform agreement said the jail has a serious problem with contraband. Guards don’t know how to search inmates’ cells properly, and administrators make little effort to analyze how drugs and weapons get into the jail, the report said.

“The amount of contraband smuggled into the facility as well as the number of weapons confiscated from inmates are unacceptable,” the monitors said.

Gusman and Maynard avoided addressing contraband or the raft of recent inmate deaths at a sparsely attended Jan. 11 public meeting.

However, Stelly, the jail spokesman, said the jail is conducting a "thorough review" of how Sullivan managed to get hold of heroin in custody.

"Introduction of contraband into facilities has been and always will be a challenge faced by every jail," Stelly said. "OPSO has taken many steps to address the introduction of contraband and continues to change its protocols each time an incident involving contraband occurs. In addition, the Sheriff’s Office has arrested several employees suspected of introducing contraband; we will continue to hold staff and inmates accountable for any such activities."

Sheriff’s Office brass are set to appear before the federal judge overseeing the jail’s operation at a Jan. 29 court hearing.

Washington, the inmate advocate at the MacArthur Justice Center, said Maynard and Gusman should face a reckoning.

“Last week, Director Maynard and Sheriff Gusman held what was supposed to be a community meeting, but few members of the community were invited or present,” she said. “There was no mention of contraband (or recent deaths). ... Director Maynard and the Sheriff’s Office must be held accountable for providing accurate and complete information about conditions in the jail.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432