OPPRC's Statement on the death of Jaquin Thomas

OPPRC is deeply disturbed by the news of Jaquin Thomas’ death in OPP, and extends condolences to his family and community. His is the 48th death in OPP since 2006, and the second death, following Cleveland Tumblin’s suicide in March, to occur in the Orleans Justice Center, which opened just over a year ago. Many questions remain surrounding the circumstances that led to this 15-year-old's alleged suicide in an adult jail.

Thomas' death is a tragic reminder of the brutal, violent, and deadly conditions inside OPP. His death illustrates the need for increased accountability and community oversight, and the need to oppose any plans to expand the jail. At a time when the jail is severely understaffed, when protocols have not been written or followed, when classification systems are repeatedly ignored, and when the jail has been mismanaged for so many years, building more beds and exposing more people to the violence and neglect will do nothing to improve public safety. A smaller jail is a safer jail. Children and people with mental illness should not be in jail, and we will continue to oppose any jail expansion in their name.

An Open Letter Regarding Community Oversight

July 21, 2016

To:

  • Marlin Gusman, Orleans Parish Sheriff
  • Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans
  • Stacy Head, Jason R. Williams, Susan G. Guidry, LaToya Cantrell, Nadine M. Ramsey, Jared C. Brossett, James A. Gray III, City Council of New Orleans
  • The Honorable Lance Africk, Eastern District of Louisiana
  • Katie Schwartzmann, Elizabeth Cumming, Emily Washington, Eric Foley, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center
  • Rebecca H. Dietz, City Attorney, City of New Orleans
  • Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., Theodore Carter III, U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of Louisiana
  • Vanita Gupta, Steven H. Rosenbaum, Laura L. Coon, Kerry K. Dean, Corey M. Sanders, US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division

 

To Whom It May Concern:

On May 18th, 2016, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) along with several other organizations filed an amicus brief in the Jones v. Gusman lawsuit. The amicus brief asked Judge Africk to create an independent community based oversight board with real authority to monitor conditions of confinement in Orleans Parish Prison, whether receivership be granted or not. This motion was denied, and an agreement concerning receivership was reached.

According to the terms of the agreement, an Independent Compliance Director with final authority to oversee the jail will be tasked with bringing the jail into substantial compliance with the Consent Judgment. It is OPPRC’s belief that without meaningful transparency and community oversight, long-term, sustainable, humanistic care cannot be provided. Given the absolute need for more transparency and accountability to the community in the actual operation and oversight of the New Orleans jail, we request the following:

  • A public meeting to inform community members of the details and terms of the receivership agreement, and to provide a space for questions and input. Given that a search for a Compliance Director is already underway, this public meeting should occur as soon as possible.
  • A public Compliance Director interview process, whereby community members may interview potential candidates for Compliance Director. This may occur in the form of a candidates’ forum or town hall.
  • The creation of a process through which the public may submit feedback and input during the search for Compliance Director.
  • The appointment of community representatives to liaise between community members and officials involved in the Compliance Director search process. These representatives should reflect the communities that are most impacted by the operations and conditions of the jail and therefore have deep knowledge and expertise of the issues at hand.

Community involvement over the Compliance Director search process is just the beginning of a process of creating greater oversight over our jail. For over 10 years, OPPRC has been heavily involved in campaigns to reform jail conditions and shrink our jail size in order to create a safer and more just New Orleans. We ask that citizens be included as partners in the process of making our jail safer, smaller, and more humane. This is just the first step, and we stand ready to work with any and all parties to implement it.

 

Sincerely,

Donald Chopin, Member of VOTE

Yvette Thierry, B.S. in Criminal Justice, MA Candidate

On Behalf of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC)

 

This Week's Hearings

On Monday and Tuesday, Sheriff Marlin Gusman faced two hearings in federal court. Monday's hearing concerned Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office's (OPSO) plan for staffing the new jail (now called the Orleans Justice Center, or OJC), in light of the sheriff's announcement last week that he would send people with state charges back to state custody. At Tuesday's hearing the monitoring team reported on the conditions in OJC, the first official report since the move to the new building. Recap of the hearings:

At Monday’s hearing, Judge Africk began by fining both the city’s and the sheriff’s attorneys $1000 each for their failures to submit a document on time to the court. (Don’t worry taxpayers, the fines will come out of the attorneys’ own pockets, not ours). Chief of Corrections Carmen DeSadier was asked how the removal of people serving state sentences would affect the staffing shortages in the jail. DeSadier did not appear to know where her staff worked and what their duties were—eventually Judge Africk ordered the sheriff’s staff to check with payroll for a list of over 700 employees, and to submit that list along with the duties of each person to the court. In addition, the sheriff's attorney explained the system for housing people in the new jail (which the monitor pointed out was essentially meaningless given the lack of adherence to a classification system), and Judge Africk asked for the details of who in the sheriff's custody had state charges, who would be sent back to state custody, and who would remain at OJC and why. The sheriff’s staff appeared to have little idea about who was in their jail and who worked for them, and the sheriff himself was ordered to testify the next day.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Africk and the monitoring team expressed their concerns at the lack of progress, and Judge Africk expressed particular frustration over the mounting costs of this lawsuit . The monitors reported that the levels of violence in the new jail were “absolutely unacceptable.” Because of the lack of reporting by OPSO, the monitors had consulted with the medical log to identify incidents of violence. The numbers are staggering: In the first 3 months in the new jail, there were 150 incidents (119 of which had not been reported), including over 200 assaults, 16 attempted suicides, 44 uses of force (of which only 20 were reported), 3 sexual assaults, and one death from a chronic illness. There have already been 114 incidents in 2016 alone. We heard, too, about the monitors' explanations for why violence remained so high, reasons which including a lack of a system of classification, and inadequate training and supervision of the sheriff's deputies who staff the jail. These reports confirm what we already knew—that despite the shiny new facility, our community members remain unsafe and at risk of violence and death in the sheriff’s custody.

 

Our thoughts, in short:

We share Judge Africk and the monitoring team’s frustration at the continued violence and mis-management of the jail; this frustration is long overdue. We have known that despite the opening of OJC, little has changed in the way OPSO runs the jail, and the lives of our community members who are locked up continue to be endangered every minute that OPSO fails in their duty to protect them from harm and violence.

We are disappointed that so much emphasis during the hearings was placed on the financial costs of these hearings, rather than on the human cost to our community, and are disappointed that our elected officials do little more than point fingers to address our jail crisis. It’s time our elected officials put our community, not their careers, first.

Next Week's Hearings

Next week, Sheriff Gusman will face two federal court hearings concerning the size and conditions of our jail. On Monday, he will face a hearing over his decision to remove nearly 300 people (all awaiting trial) out of Orleans Parish Prison and across the state—causing a host of constitutional crises including missed court dates and denied access to legal representation—while he warehoused nearly 300 people serving state sentences, none of whom he had a legal obligation to hold.  On Tuesday, Sheriff Gusman will face a status conference on compliance with the federal Consent Decree. Despite the brand new facility, conditions at OPP remain violent, unsafe, and out of compliance with constitutional standards. The illusion has been created that conditions in the jail have improved, and that an additional jail building is necessary. In reality, despite the brand new facility, the culture of neglect and disregard for the safety of our community members who are incarcerated persists. By shuffling pre-trial inmates across the state while he maintained an ineffective reentry program for state inmates, and by continuing to refuse to retrofit Phase II to accommodate special populations, Sheriff Gusman is seeking to expand our jail system and expose too many New Orleanians to the violence and horrors of OPP.

We cannot incarcerate our way out of our social problems. Roughly 10% of the city’s budget is now spent operating the jail, a figure that will only increase if Phase III is built. We could be reallocating those funds towards building the infrastructure of a caring, safer community—affordable housing and transportation, mental and physical healthcare, drug rehabilitation programs, jobs and job trainings, libraries, community centers, equitable schools, cultural activities, all of which we know to be effective in keeping us safe. Communities are destabilized when breadwinners are thrown behind bars, when children lose their parents to the system, and when those who were incarcerated are locked out of nearly every opportunity for advancement if and when they come home. Expanding our jail will not keep us safer.

Again and again our community has spoken. We have demanded a safer jail, and a smaller jail. Through the work of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), and a broad coalition of concerned leaders and community members, we have demanded the beginning of the end of our incarceration crisis—we fought for the federal consent decree to improve conditions, and we worked hard to get the 1,438 cap cemented into law. And yet, we find ourselves working fiercely to protect all that we’ve won.

Judge Lance Africk, we urge you to do what’s right. A large, dangerous jail is not a solution.  We urge you to hear our demands for alternatives.

 

New OPSO Chief of Corrections Carmen DeSadier May Be Another Sadist In The Sheriff’s Shack

carmen-desadierjpg-73cc2f84245fcc70 In April, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman announced that he had appointed Carmen I. DeSadier to be the new chief of corrections for his office, a position she assumed on May 4th. As Chief of Corrections, she will be tasked with implementing the reforms mandated by a federal consent decree in order to bring Orleans Parish Jail into constitutional compliance.

DeSadier comes to us after having risen from a correctional officer to First Assistant Executive Director Sheriff within the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago, IL. Cook County Jail is widely regarded as one of the most violent jails in the country. During a hearing in October 2014, an expert witness testified that the violence in parts of Cook County Jail was some of the worst jail violence he’s ever seen.

Not only was DeSadier a senior administrator in one of the most violent jails in the country, she herself has a less-than-clean track record. A 1993 internal affairs report stated that while working as a sergeant in the jail, DeSadier brought a “large group of officers” who are said to have beaten a group of 15 inmates after an inmate called DeSadier “Olive Oyl.” Despite Cook County paying out millions of dollars over abuse of prisoners, and her involvement in such abuses, DeSadier has since been promoted and worked her way up to becoming a senior administrator.

In a twist of small world carceral irony, Cook County jail, like OPP, is also under a federal consent decree being monitored by Susan McCampbell, the same lead monitor overseeing OPP’s 2-year old consent decree. DeSadier had worked for Cook County jail for at least a decade before a consent decree was issued in 2010. What was her role in leading the jail towards a place deemed so violent as to be unconstitutional? Where is the record of her complaints of abuse, or are there only complaints leveled against her? Under her oversight, why has the consent decree at Cook County Jail been in place for 5 years without being lifted? Why did Sheriff Gusman hire a senior administrator at one of the most violent jails in the country to run ours? In her most recent Summary of Findings of Compliance, Susan McCampbell failed to find the sheriff fully in compliance with any of the 174 paragraphs of the Consent Judgment. In other words, in the face of failure, Sheriff Gusman brought in a senior administrator from one of America’s most notoriously failing jails.

This hiring is just the latest in Sheriff Gusman’s mis-handling of the jail. From ignoring City Council’s 1438-bed mandate for the new jail, to his “incompetently negotiated and illegal” health care contract for inmate health care at Orleans Parish Prison, Sheriff Gusman has proven yet again his lack of commitment to a smaller, safer jail.

Given the Sheriff’s mis-management and questionable judgment, his unilateral appointment must be called into question. The process through which DeSadier was selected remains murky; according to the Sheriff’s website, a national search was conducted. The members of her selection committee, if there was one, remain unknown. Unlike the process in which former Chief of Corrections Michael Tidwell was hired, DeSadier’s selection process appears to have been a unilateral decision on the part of the sheriff.

Michael Tidwell, the former Chief of Corrections who resigned in December, wrote in his resignation letter that he hoped his resignation would allow the sheriff to “hire someone more in tune with (his) management style and agency vision.” This begs the question to be answered; is safer, smaller and/or more humane found anywhere in the Sheriff’s vision when it pertains to OPP?

Open Letter to Criminal Justice Chair Guidry re: Violence in OPP

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 oppreform@gmail.com or at 504.264.2189. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC)

Mayor Plays Political Games at Our Peril

STATEMENT FROM ORLEANS PARISH PRISON REFORM COALITION  April 18, 2013Mayor Plays Political Games at Our Peril

We, the members of Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) are appalled by the latest political theatrics of our elected officials with regard to the deadly conditions in Orleans Parish Prison. OPP is in crisis, and has been for more than 30 years. The impending Consent Decree would force the City *and* the Sheriff to finally do the right thing and make the changes necessary to ensure the safety of staff and inmates in a facility that now boasts over 700 assaults each year. However, instead of supporting the consent decree, our Mayor and his attorneys have engaged in the worst kind of hypocrisy, denying that conditions in OPP are unconstitutional while at the same time, claiming that things are so bad that the court should place the jail in federal receivership. The political chess game which is playing out in both the media and in U.S. District Court is a slap in the faces of the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters incarcerated in OPP, and the families of the 41 people who have died there in the last 8 years. It is also a threat to all New Orleanians, because we are all made unsafe by our dehumanizing, unconstitutional jail.

“Knowing the personal stories of young people, many of them gay and transgender, who have been raped in OPP, set on fire, had their jaws broken, and been charged with attempted escape for running from their attackers- we are outraged that the City is stalling reforms in OPP. We must make immediate changes to all the institutions that are criminalizing and brutalizing our most vulnerable New Orleanians,” said Milan Alexander, Youth Organizer for BreakOUT! and OPPRC member.

Mayor Landrieu’s request for a receivership last week is clearly a red herring, intended to drag out the Consent Decree process and avoid both financial and political responsibility. During his entire administration, the Mayor has had ample opportunity to take action on the appalling conditions at OPP.* In September 2010, OPPRC organized over 300 people who contributed to the cost of taking out a full page advertisement in the Times-Picayune  demanding that the City’s leaders take responsibility and adopt two very basic reforms — ending the per diem and building a smaller capacity jail — which would improve the situation in OPP. Recognizing the fallacy of arresting our way to public safety, the City Council unanimously voted in February of 2011 to cap new jail construction at 1,438 beds. In November of that same year, OPPRC delivered a petition with over 2,000 signatures calling upon the Mayor to put an end to the Sheriff’s per diem funding system, which serves as a perverse incentive to incarcerate, and to support the 1,438 bed cap.

Instead of endorsing these measures, the Mayor’s office continued private email conversations with Sheriff Gusman to build additional beds and proposed budgets to the council in 2011 and again in 2012 that continued to include per diem funding for the jail. Once again, in 2012, prompted by growing reports of rape and assaults in OPP, concerned residents gathered outside of City Hall to protest Mayor’s apparent indifference and to remind him of his responsibility to ensure that city funds were not subsidizing violations of fundamental human rights. By this point, it had been sufficiently documented that conditions at OPP were so dangerous that all federal inmates were ordered removed. Once again, the Mayor did nothing.

"I voted for Mayor Landrieu and generally I support him. But his misguided efforts to drive a wedge in this troubled city between "good" folks and the folks in OPP concern me greatly,” said Reverend Melanie Morel-Ensminger, Minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans & North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society. “As a person of faith, as a white person striving to be antiracist, as a proud life-long New Orleanian, I say those inside OPP *are* New Orleanians, our brothers and sisters, deserving decent care and humane treatment, no matter what they are accused or convicted of."

The Consent Decree represents countless hours of community commitment to improve conditions at OPP, and is the first step for any meaningful reform. But without admission of wrongdoing, it will only be a piece of paper. The reams of legal briefings filed by the Mayor and Sheriff abdicating responsibility and pointing fingers at each other only prolongs the suffering of fellow New Orleanians incarcerated there. This is also true of the racially charged language being exchanged by our elected officials.

OPPRC would like to make it clear that jail size, funding, and conditions are deeply and fundamentally racial. Subhuman conditions at OPP are intimately tied to the value that we as a city assign to African American life, and our staggering incarceration rate is fundamentally about our society’s fear of Black people. Whether Black or White, when public officials act with indifference for the harm being done to Black people, we must ask ourselves whose interests they serve. Racial justice demands more of both the Mayor and of the Sheriff.

We are in a state of perpetual and untenable crisis. In terms familiar to New Orleanians, the storm at OPP has escalated to “category five” status. It’s time to evacuate.

With a renewed sense of urgency we demand that persons held on non-violent charges — who, by law, would be set free in the event that a Category 3 hurricane were in the Gulf — be immediately released from Orleans Parish Prison. These individuals pose no threat to the community, but conditions in the jail do pose a significant threat to their lives.

“We, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, have been pushing for a safer, smaller, more humane jail since 2004. We cannot wait any longer!”

*The Department of Justice published its report on Conditions in OPP in September of 2009.