Dear Councilmember Guidry,
This past Friday, March 7, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the plaintiffs in Jones, et al. v. Gusman, et al. (i.e., the Orleans Parish Prison Consent Decree lawsuit) filed proposed findings of fact and a number of exhibits with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in preparation for an upcoming court hearing regarding funding of OPP. The documents, among other things, demonstrate that violence at OPP has remained at an unacceptably high level since the lawsuit was initially filed two years ago, and even since the court intervened with its Consent Judgment. Thus, despite apparent attempts to ebb the level of violence at OPP, the violence has continued, and even increased, to the detriment of the individuals being housed in OPP facilities and danger to those who work at the jail.
Reports from January-October 2013 reveal up to 73 inmates a month were routed to the emergency room due to conditions at the jail, including for lacerations/punctures, fractures/dislocations, trauma, mental health crises, broken bones and sexual assault.. Approximately 66 of those are for trauma related injuries. These numbers are in stark contrast to the findings of Judge Africk regarding the Shelby County Jail in Memphis, TN, which has a similar jail population. That facility had just seven emergency routes to hospital emergency rooms for trauma related incidents in a year, meanwhile OPP had hundreds in the same time frame.
The documents filed indicate that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office continues to lack an appropriate classification system, with the effect of mixing persons charged with violent crimes with individuals at risk. Apparently there are still entire tiers at the jail where individuals are being housed which have no guards at all for significant periods of time. In addition, there are inadequate activities and services for inmates, all of which contributes to violence at the jail. Evidently, the widespread availability of weapons and drugs has also contributed to the persistence of violent conditions.
These types of findings are unacceptable months after a federal consent decree and after more than two years of litigation. Though there are some issues that must go before the court before they can be sufficiently addressed, there are steps that can and should be taken immediately to curb levels of violence at the jail. One straightforward and immediate action would be to shut down non-essential operations and re-assign personnel to the jail so that no single tier is left unguarded at any time.
It is also crucial to determine how many inmates can be safely, securely, humanely and constitutionally held right now given the amount and availability of personnel. The jail population should be capped to reflect the safest ratio of staffers to inmates possible. Such a move is not unprecedented, as Jefferson Parish has had a cap on their jail population for years based on space and staffing, and their jail has nowhere near the amount of violence as OPP. There are numerous other options for classifying and housing inmates, such as contracting with other facilities and releasing those who do not pose a threat, to deal with overflow, rather than continue to hold people in a facility that is so obviously unsafe and dangerous.
Councilmember Guidry, the current conditions at OPP are horrendous. Reasonable measures can and should be taken immediately to reduce the level of violence. We are asking that you, in your capacity as chair of the Criminal Justice Sub-Committee of the City Council, call a hearing before your committee, as soon as possible, regarding violence at the jail and to determine steps which the city can take to immediately address the current crisis in OPP. If the jail cannot currently provide adequate staff to prevent the violence, then the City needs to find other alternatives rather than continuing to house people in this unsafe and violent jail. We cannot simply continue to expose individuals who are in custody or individuals who work at the jail to these extremely dangerous conditions. Under current conditions, the jail remains an inhumane, unconstitutional and life threatening environment for citizens of the City of New Orleans who find themselves housed there and for those who work there.
We hope to hear your decision regarding this matter. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 504.264.2189. Thank you for your consideration.
Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC)