Criminal Justice

Inmate's lawyer: Sheriff emptied women's jail after complaint to feds about conditions

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman moved his women prisoners from their separate facility at Orleans Parish Prison into a temporary tent next door after a complaint about conditions, the attorney who filed the complaint said Tuesday.

Attorney Billy Sothern wrote to the U.S. Marshals Office on Feb. 10, requesting an inquiry into conditions at the 288-bed South White Street women’s facility. It is not clear what led Gusman to subsequently move the female inmates; Gusman was not copied on the letter, and the U.S. Marshals Office told The Lens it is not investigating conditions at the facility.

Sothern declined to provide a copy of the letter, to protect the privacy of his client.

The South White Street facility, a converted industrial building, suffers like most of Orleans Parish Prison from cramped conditions and cockroach problems. Sothern raised issues about the constitutionality of conditions of confinement, medical treatment, and access to legal counsel in his letter.

Sothern’s client, a female U.S Marshals Office prisoner, was subsequently moved along with all the other women at South White Street to one of eight temporary tents next door, Sothern said. The tents were built to house 704 inmates in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The South White Street women's facility is next to the temporary tents. Satellite image from Google Maps.

After a few days, Sothern’s client was moved to St. Charles Parish along with five or six other U.S Marshals Office inmates, Sothern said. It is not clear whether the other female inmates were eventually moved back into the South White Street facility or if they remain in the temporary tents today.

Gusman’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“I am grateful that my client was moved by the U.S Marshals Office after I informed them of my concerns,” Sothern wrote in an e-mail to The Lens. “I would hope that the appropriate authorities will inquire further into conditions regarding the women that remain in custody at the jail.”

Sothern copied U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on his letter. Holder’s Department of Justice criticized inadequate staffing and mental health care at the South White Street facility as part of a damning letter of findings about jail conditions sent to Gusman in September 2009.

Holder’s office threatened to sue Gusman if a list of conditions in the findings letter were not met. Gusman told The Lens in a September interview that the letter summarizing the results of the federal investigation was “so ridiculous it was insulting.” Nevertheless, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez would not back down from the threat to sue over jail conditions at a press conference last week, saying his office would seek community input on the jail.

“We continue to work with the sheriff’s department,” Perez said. “The letter of findings was issued, and we continue to work to resolve the matter.”

The U.S. Marshals Service issued a statement saying it transferred several female prisoners during that timeframe, as part of the office’s prisoner population management system.

“The office is aware an attorney had written a letter to the Department of Justice regarding conditions within the Orleans Parish facility,” wrote Marshals Office spokeswoman Lynzey Donahue. “At present, the local office is not conducting or aware of any official investigation being conducted into conditions within the facility.”

Both South White Street and the temporary tents are slated for demolition after the completion of a new 1,438-bed jail facility recently approved by the City Council.

A spokesman for St. Charles Parish said he would need to look into whether the U.S Marshals Service inmates were transferred.

“I’m not sure if we received them or not,” Sgt. Dwayne LaGrange said.

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  • I’m not sure if we received them or not,!?!?!?

    “I’m not sure if we received them or not,” Sgt. Dwayne LaGrange said.

    What!?!? These are human beings we’re talking about. not cans of tomato paste.

    Gusman’s jail needs to be investigated. Period.
    It is well known on the street that he is running a drug and prostitution ring inside prison walls.

    Come on Eric Holder, What, or who, is holding you back?