New Orleans Prison Described as a Gulag

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Ten people say in a federal class action that conditions inside Orleans Parish Prison are so vile they create a “public safety crisis that affects the entire City of New Orleans” – so dangerous that the federal government will no longer house its prisoners there.
     The federal government last week withdrew its per diem funding for the prison, according to the complaint. The defendants “previously received a per diem from the federal government, but last week the U.S. Marshals announced that they have pulled all of their prisoners from OPP [Orleans Parish Prison] due to concerns about conditions and safety,” the complaint states.
     The class, of inmates and people who will be inmates, says most people incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison are pre-trial detainees.
     “Individuals housed at the jail are at imminent risk of serious harm. Rapes, sexual assaults, and beatings are commonplace throughout the facility. Violence regularly occurs at the hands of sheriffs’ deputies, as well as other prisoners. The facility is full of homemade knives, or ‘shanks.’ People living with serious mental illnesses languish without treatment, left vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. These conditions have created a public safety crisis that affects the entire City of New Orleans.”
     Conditions are so bad that “a 2009 findings letter by the United States Department of Justice concluded that conditions in Orleans Parish Prison are unconstitutional. Violations found included inadequate protection from harm, including specifically inadequate classification and staffing. The DOJ also found inadequate mental health and medical care, including staffing and an express finding of a failure to follow-up on mental health issues at intake screening,” the complaint states.
     It adds: “Recent Department of Health and Hospital (DHH) budget cuts have made OPP the largest psychiatric unit in the City of New Orleans. National statistics indicate that 64 percent of incarcerated people suffer from mental illness, and Orleans Parish’s numbers are higher.”
     The class claims: “Sheriff [Marlin] Gusman demonstrates deliberate indifference to the basic rights of the people housed at OPP by implementing constitutionally deficient security, staffing, classification and mental health policies and practices.”
     For instance: “Upon admission to OPP, defendants have a policy of suspending medication for 30 days, and sometimes longer. This makes people living with mental illness particularly susceptible to abuse, because symptoms of their mental illness begin to manifest acutely when they are denied medication. Unsurprisingly, this practice causes some individuals to experience suicidal ideation.
     “Suicidal prisoners with mental health needs are transferred to a direct observation cell, in which they are held almost naked for days. Once they no longer express a desire to injure themselves, they then are transferred to the psychiatric tiers – where they are locked down in their cells for 23 hours a day and deprived of mental health interventions. People living there are not allowed to go outside or visit with their families. Overhead lights are on 24 hours per day, and the tier contains actively psychotic people living on the ground in overcrowded cells. Deputies do not walk the tiers. Rape is rampant. The conditions have been well documented, by the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission, the U.S. Marshals, the media, by individual civil lawsuits and by motions in criminal cases. In spite of widespread public knowledge about the conditions within the facility, the defendants have failed to correct known deficiencies, and, indeed, recently opened an additional 400 bed temporary detention facility.
     “An expert hired by the City of New Orleans has recommended a jail with 1,438 beds, based upon New Orleans’ population and crime rates. OPP currently has 3,400 beds. The defendants are not adequately staffing or supervising a facility of this size. As additional beds are opened up, more lives are placed in danger. The City of New Orleans has made some efforts to reduce the number of people incarcerated in OPP for low-level offenses, but over 35,000 people are processed through intake annually.”
     The class claims that a “2009 findings letter by the United States Department of Justice concluded that conditions in Orleans Parish Prison are unconstitutional. Violations found included inadequate protection from harm, including specifically inadequate classification and staffing. The DOJ also found inadequate mental health and medical care, including staffing and an express finding of a failure to follow-up on mental health issues at intake screening.”
     In addition, the class says: “people who need mental health services are discouraged from seeking necessary care because they are charged a three-dollar copayment for submitting a sick call form. The prisoners’ accounts are charged as soon as the form is filled out, whether or not the individual is seen by medical personnel. If a condition worsens or becomes more severe, prisoners are hesitant to submit additional forms, which will debit money from their account, without assurance that they will actually be treated.”
     Lead plaintiff LaShawn Jones is diagnosed as bipolar and manic schizophrenic, according to the complaint.
     “She was arrested and placed in OPP on March 21, 2012. Her charges are unknown to both her and her family,” the complaint states.
     “LaShawn has struggled with her mental health issues for years. She knows when she hears voices that she needs to go to the mental health center. She went there on March 21, 2012.
     “It is unclear what happened, but somehow LaShawn was arrested. Her family has been informed by the health service provider that LaShawn was arrested because the facility could not take care of her due to budget cuts.
     “LaShawn was brought to the psychiatric floor of OPP, in the House of Detention. Other prisoners on the tier saw her brought in. They heard the female deputy who brought her in, say ‘You wanna fu**in’ fight me one on one? You wanna fu**in’ play with me?’ [Asterisks in complaint.]
     “At this point the deputy proceeded to beat and attack LaShawn. LaShawn sustained lacerations and bruising to her face and body. Other women attest that the beating was severe and lasted awhile. LaShawn was seen immediately afterwards, bleeding all over herself from lacerations to her face and wearing nothing but her underwear. LaShawn was left on the tier for days without medical care. Eventually she was transported to the hospital.
     “As of this filing, LaShawn has a bloody, blackened eye, from the attack that occurred over a week ago.”
     The class claims that “in much of the prison, it appears that often only one officer is assigned to supervise each floor. This is consistent with the DOJ findings letter, which noted that there often is one deputy per 88 man tent, or one guard per floor in the HOD, which would be one individual deputy supervising 60 prisoners.”
     In the event of an emergency, prisoners have to administer first aid to one another, and often have to call 911 for assistance, according to the complaint.
     “In addition to the DOJ letter referenced above, Sheriff Gusman has been the defendant in over 200 lawsuits in the three years since that letter came out,” the complaint states. “Many of those suits involved excessive violence in the facility. Likewise, many criminal defense attorneys have filed motions in their clients’ criminal cases that detailed the brutality their clients suffered while in Sheriff Gusman’s custody. In many of these cases, the state court judges ordered transfer of vulnerable or victimized detainees. The media has widely reported criminal defendants showing up for court with wounds from the prison. In January of this year, undersigned counsel placed defendants on notice of violent conditions in certain areas of the jail. Still, the conditions persist. A review of the routes from OPP to University Hospital for the month of February 2012 show 23 transports to the hospital from OPP for fractures, puncture wounds, lacerations, trauma and the like. This does not include medical emergencies handled in-house at OPP.”
     The class claims that “officers who enter the prison at night are not searched. This allows correctional officers to smuggle in drugs and contraband. Defendants are aware that the contraband-smuggling takes place, but they have not taken reasonably adequate measures to halt the practice, including adequate measures to ensure that correctional officers are properly searched before entering the facility. The presence of contraband in the facility increases violence.”
     Class member Leonard Lewis claims he needs protection because he is testifying against a man in a criminal case.
     “Despite this known affiliation, Leonard has been threatened, beat up and stabbed in multiple buildings at OPP. Defendants have failed to take reasonable measure to provide him with adequate protection.
     “Leonard was first attacked in August of 2010, when a deputy put him in a cell with a person who knew the man Leonard is testifying against. The deputy knew Leonard was at risk, but placed him in the cell anyway. Leonard was stabbed multiple times,” the complaint states.
     More attacks followed. “In November, while on protective custody, Leonard was jumped again on his way back from court.”
     The class could be as large as 35,000 people, as that is how many people pass through the prison each year.
     Named as defendants are Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, House of Detention Warden Carlos Louque, Old Parish Prison Warden Kevin Winfield, Templeman Phase V Warden Bonita Pittman, Warden of Temporary Jails Charles Ezeb, Conchetta Warden Jerrod Spinney, Medical Director Samuel Gore, and Psychiatric Director Charles Higgins.
     The class is represented by Katie Schwartzmann with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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