By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Community members told the Department of Justice of their concerns about jail conditions under Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman tonight at a Central City forum  organized by the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.

The coalition, whose 30 member organizations include the ACLU of Louisiana, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, is pushing the Justice Department to follow through on a two-year-old threat to sue Gusman if he did not improve conditions at the jail.

“There have been 13 deaths at the jail since then,” said coalition member Norris Henderson, who runs the nonprofit Voice Of The Ex-Offender. “And conditions have not improved.”

Justice Department attorney Regina Jansen insisted that her agency will pursue a federal court-ordered and supervised agreement with Gusman, called a consent decree.

“I’m here to tell you that it’s an open and ongoing investigation,” Jansen said, highlighting recent allegations made about prisoner rape, abuse by guards and violence inside the jail. “It’s these types of meetings and events that give us more insight into what you want to see in our consent decree.”

Department of Justice attorney Regina Jansen insisted that the Department of Justice plans to pursue a consent decree against Gusman. “My role is to listen,” she said. Photo by Matt Davis

Gusman has said he thinks he can reach an agreement with the department without going to court, but tonight’s hearing is not the first time the department has insisted that it wants judicial oversight.

Former prisoners told Jansen about conditions at the jail in harrowing terms.

“I just got out of a 10-man cell that had 16 of us in it, and the conditions in there with it being summertime, everyone in there was basically naked,” said Dereck Robinson, who was released from the jail last month.

Robinson said the overcrowded conditions, only one working phone for all 16 men, and lack of air-conditioning led to fights between inmates.

A victim of Gusman’s controversial policy on immigration holds criticized the sheriff for holding her longer than he was required to, she said. The law says that Gusman has 48 hours to transfer immigration inmates to a federal holding facility or let them go, she said. And another man highlighted the case of an immigrant arrested for fighting who was subsequently held for over 90 days on an immigration hold.

“The way the sheriff hides behind it is he called him a criminal,” said Jose Manuel Zelaya. “We need reform now.”

Another former inmate said guards ignored his requests for medical attention.

“I was in the House of Detention for 92 days with stomach pains. From the very first day until the 92nd day I complained about stomach problems,” Ronald McCoy said. “Each time I got four aspirin in a brown envelope and was told the doctor would see me. Two days after I got out, I was rushed to hospital where my gallstones, appendix and gall bladder were all operated on at the same time. It fell on deaf ears.”

McCoy also described a situation where a gay man was placed in a cell with nine aggressive young men and was allegedly beaten every day.

“I really believe in my heart that they put him in that cell for that purpose,” McCoy said.

The audience also heard from Wes Ware, director of BreakOUT!, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer rights project of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. He read testimony from a young gay inmate who said there was a high fear of rape and violence amongst such inmates.

“People could get raped or jumped and there was nothing that could be done about it,” Ware said, adding that transgender inmates are also declined hormone medication.

Other problems exist with medical care, community members said.

“There’s some issues around health that are serious,” said Deon Haywood, executive director of non-profit Women With A Vision. “People with HIV aren’t taking their medications. When women have issues of reproductive health, they don’t get what they need. Everybody should have medical care.”

Another man, whose wife’s nephew is at the jail, said that the young man has been severely beaten in the jail and denied medical attention.

“All I can say on you, Department of Justice, is shame on you,” Keith Hudson said. “Please, Department Of Justice, it’s time for you all to step up. Wake up, whatever you’re all doing, and save us.”

Civil rights attorney Liz Cumming followed up with Hudson to hear more about his wife’s nephew and offer legal assistance.

Hope House director Don Everand encouraged the crowd to not lose sight of another jail advocacy issue, encouraging Mayor Mitch Landrieu to approve a jail no larger than 1,438 beds.

“We think that the mayor is under considerable pressure to back down from that,” Everand said. “And we need to respond to that as a community and say keep it small.”

Jansen took notes throughout the meeting but declined comment afterwards.

More photos from the meeting are online here. The Lens hosted a live web stream of the meeting for community members who were unable to make it, and there will be a second similar meeting at the Treme Community Center, 900 North Villere St., 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 1.

Update, Sept. 22: A video of the entire session taped by Deborah Cotton of the New Orleans Coalition For Open Governance — a group of which The Lens is a member — is posted below.