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?

OPPRC Calls For Urgent Action in Response to Jail Conditions

OPPRC members and supporters gathered today at Tulane & Broad, then walked several blocks to the OPP Intake & Processing Center.  We called for a moratorium on admissions to a facility where conditions continue to be inhumane, unconstitutional and life-threatening, and we renewed our call for Mayor Landrieu to declare the jail in a state of emergency, thus triggering the release of persons held for minor, non-violent crimes.

We were joined by the family of Willie Lee, the most recent person to die while under custody of OPP. Lee's mother, Margie Lee Hulitt spoke at the protest about the death of her son, including how she was not notified of his death until Sunday evening (close to a day after he died) and still has not been allowed to see his body.  See video here.

The City needs to find other alternatives rather than continuing to house people in an unsafe and violent jail.  We urged Susan Guidry and other members of the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee to take urgent action in an open letter that we released on March 13, 2014. Within ten days of the letter's release another individual died in custody following a fight between prisoners in the jail's temporary housing unit known as "the tents."

The consent decree has not resulted in significant improvement in the conditions in the jail, and the first report of the federal monitoring team found that inmates in OPP “continue to experience severe problems with shoddy medical care, violence and a general attitude of apathy toward their grievances.”

There have been 25 in-custody deaths in OPP since 2009, and up to 73 inmates a month are sent to the emergency room.

Many of the people currently in OPP pose zero risk to public safety- as evidenced by the fact that they would simply be released under hurricane evacuation conditions. Instead, they are held in OPP, on taxpayer’s money, where they are in danger of being beaten, raped, stabbed, or possibly even killed in the jail.  We cannot in good conscience hold people subject to this dehumanizing violence. The City is responsible for their safety. The Mayor has the responsibility to stop this bloodshed.

New Orleans Needs Real Reform, Not a Larger Jail

Note:  If you haven't yet made calls to the Mayor or your Councilpersons, it's not too late!  More info here. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

September 3, 2013

Contact: Norris Henderson 504-453-4819

STATEMENT FROM ORLEANS PARISH PRISON REFORM COALITION

New Orleans Needs Real Reform, Not a Larger Jail

Last week, Mayor Landrieu and Sheriff Gusman announced their intent to add an additional building to the planned construction of the new jail - a move that violates both a 2011 City Council ordinance and the public’s trust. As our elected officials surely remember, that ordinance, which passed unanimously in City Council with an outpouring of public support, limits the number of beds in the new jail facility to 1,438. As members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) we oppose the building of any additional jail beds beyond the agreed-upon 1,438 cap. To increase the size of the jail at this moment would not only be a blatant disregard of the democratic process, it would be a capitulation to the kind of racialized fear-mongering that has held this city hostage for far too long.

To be clear: the rate at which the city of New Orleans incarcerates is astronomically higher than any other place on earth. To fill a 1,438 bed jail, New Orleans would still need to incarcerate at a rate of double the national average in a country widely agreed to suffer from a crisis of over-incarceration. Although the city is proposing to use FEMA dollars to build the additional facility, the cost of maintaining it indefinitely into the future is one that will fall on taxpayers for generations to come.

Not only is incarceration at these rates unnecessary and costly to the city, it is also dangerous. In a report released on August 29th, the Metropolitan Crime Commission used a current population snapshot to suggest that the new jail will need to be at least 2,200 beds to serve New Orleans’ needs. By treating the size of the prisoner population as fixed, the report forecloses meaningful discussion of reforming the wasteful and inhumane practices that drive up the population. Moreover, the report implies that the population currently incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is made up primarily of violent offenders who, if released, would be a danger to public safety. This is absolutely and unequivocally false. In reality, the vast majority of OPP prisoners are pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of any crime. Of those, many are charged with minor offenses such as drug possession. To paint young men convicted of marijuana possession as rapists and murderers is a deception that is not simply irresponsible: it costs lives.

Our city continues to incarcerate people not based on any danger they pose to the community, but based on their inability to pay bond. This leads to the disproportionate incarceration of poor people of color. About 84 percent of those incarcerated in New Orleans are African Americans. The average length of time spent waiting for trial is 69 days for African Americans and 38 days for whites.

It is long past time our city’s governing officials committed to implementing the reforms needed to responsibly address the current crisis. While the current population at OPP is greater than the 1,438 projected by expert researchers during the planning of new construction, this in no way an indication that we need a bigger jail. Rather, it is a reminder that our city’s criminal justice agencies must be held accountable to implementing policies that will reduce the jail population and increase public safety. Instead of considering the construction of new jail facilities, we urge the Mayor and City Council to consider the current practices of the courts, police, and District Attorney, and to make policy changes that promote pretrial release, diversion, and treatment over arrest and incarceration. We demand that the city fully fund the Pretrial Services program and that our judges be held accountable to making use of that program to make responsible and safe bond decisions. We also urge the city to invest in community-based treatment for people struggling with substance use and mental health issues, rather than building more jail beds for them.

We understand that the road to meaningful reform is long and hard, but we must begin the journey in earnest. Building a larger jail will not solve our city’s problems. Let’s start to talk about what will. As a contribution to that conversation, OPPRC plans to issue an open letter to Mitch Landrieu later this week.

 

 

 

OPPRC Action Alert -- Support the 1438 cap!

Raising our voices (again) in support of the 1438 cap on beds at OPP

Recent media reports and court filings reveal that the Sheriff and Mayor are coming together to advocate that the City change or ignore the 2011 City ordinance that capped the number of beds in Orleans Parish Prison to 1438. Hundreds of community members  packed the City Council chambers, signed petitions, called their councilpersons, etc. in order to get the 1438 cap included in the ordinance approving construction of a new jail building.  Now, we we need to call on you again to stand with us in making sure that our voices are not blatantly ignored.

The city does not need to incarcerate more people to properly care for the people it does incarcerate. In fact, the opposite is the case. It is the responsibility of our Mayor and City Council to ensure a safe and humane jail facility is built without breaking the promises they made to cap the jail's size.

Please contact the Mayor, City Councilpersons, and both at-large Councilpersons to remind them of the importance of the beds being capped at 1438 and to let tell them know that you do not support amending the ordinance to increase the number of beds in the jail beyond that number. Here are phone numbers and emails for the City Councilpersons and the Mayor:

Note: If you aren't sure of your Council district, City Council maps are available here and your ward and precinct #'s are here

What are the advantages of limiting the number of jail beds in Orleans Parish Prison to no more than 1438?

 Currently, Orleans Parish is the national leader in jailing its people. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other city in the US. Even if New Orleans reaches a population of 400,000, the proposed cap of 1438 would still leave us at 43.8% more beds than the national average per capita jail population rate.

 People are being locked up unnecessarily. Many thousands of people who pose little or no public safety risk continue to be arrested and incarcerated for minor offenses, including an inability to pay court costs. Mass incarceration increases social problems including disenfranchisement and despair in formerly incarcerated persons, their families and their communities. Incarceration puts employment and housing at risk, thus resulting in instability and vulnerability. Communities of color are especially impacted by mass incarceration due to documented racial disparities in our prison system.

Mass incarceration diverts public funds from other uses that have been proven more effective at creating a safe community including mental health & drug rehab programs, job training, libraries, community centers, after school programs, youth and recreation programs, affordable housing, cultural activities and economic development opportunities. Every one-bed reduction in OPP saves the city approx $11,900 in operating expenses for the jail. Every dollar that it takes to operate the jail comes from taxpayers. Our high incarceration rate results in fewer breadwinners in our community, fewer tax dollars coming into our city, and greater need for services and support for the families and loved ones of people inside.

 Capping the beds at OPP will work in support of the reforms that are currently being implemented by various actors in the criminal justice system including the police, the district attorney's office, etc. Orleans Parish also needs to fully implement effective Pre-Trial Services & policies like using summons as an alternative to pretrial detention. Building more beds will only undermine these need reforms.

Together we can make sure that New Orleans will no longer be the incarceration capitol of the world!

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.