Criminal Justice

Guns, drugs, gambling, violence: Video shows out-of-control Orleans prison

A 2009 video shot in the now-closed House of Detention was the shocking highlight as a hearing about the proposed federal consent decree with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office entered its second day, Tuesday.

Among a raft of startling images of disorder and depravity, the video, as edited by WVUE-TV, a Lens partner, features an inmate in a locked prison dorm showing off a loaded, long-barreled handgun.  

The video was pulled from a safe at the parish prison complex at the demand of attorneys representing the city of New Orleans. The city is refusing to give Sheriff Marlin Gusman what Mayor Mitch Landrieu has called a “blank check” to cover the cost of the federally mandated reforms.

The video was shown Tuesday morning to a rapt room of lawyers at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to determine whether the city will be able to get out from under a decree that it says could cost taxpayers $110 million over five years.

The city has been trying this week to convince Africk that the conditions at the jail are Sheriff Marlin’s Gusman’s responsibility and financial burden.

To end a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of inmates by the Southern Poverty Law Center, late last year Gusman agreed to implement a consent decree that the Department of Justice has been urging on him since 2011.

Gusman agreed to go along with the consent decree, while denying that conditions in the jails under his control are, as the feds claim, unconstitutionally brutal and deficient.  

The video was offered in support of the city’s claim that Gusman has mismanaged the jail.

It begins with a familiar scene: a man enjoying the sights and sounds of Bourbon Street.

Moments later, the video cuts to a close-up of that same man, now inside the House of Detention and preparing to inject heroin into his arm.

Heroin use is just the beginning. Other drugs are injected, snorted or smoked as inmates laugh, grin and carry on merrily, seemingly oblivious to possible recrimination by guards.

Crack cocaine is smoked, lines of heroin are snorted off the cover of word-puzzle books available in the prison commissary. Inmates show off pills, pull Budweiser “tall-boys” from an in-cell cooler and slug back the contraband beer.  There’s a dice game going on, and an inmate flashes a money roll.

Everything’s for sale at the prison, one inmate is heard to say: meth, pills, crack, heroin.

The inmates also point out the deplorable conditions in which they live, deficiencies perhaps best exemplified when an inmate shows off glue traps the size of shoeboxes, so big are the rats that roam the facility.  

After the video presentation in court, the Department of Justice called its first witness, Manuel Romero, a corrections expert.

Romero studied general conditions of confinement at the jail for a report he filed on behalf of the Justice Department in April to back up the federal government’s contention that Gusman’s  jail violates civil rights guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S.  Constitution.  

Through on-site visits and interviews with inmates and staff, Romero determined conditions at the prison complex to be unaccceptable — indeed, more violent than at any of the many prisons he has studied.  

In his 30 years in the field, he had never seen anything that came close to the “level of boldness” exhibited by the prisoners in the video, Romero said.

“It’s obvious that there is not a good program for the control of contraband,” he said, adding that the security situation at the jail is an exercise in “total dysfunction.”

Gusman issued a statement in the early afternoon saying that he closed the House of Detention a year ago, and that the depravity depicted in the video was part of the reason why. He takes the stand Wednesday.

In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Mitch Landrieu echoed what everyone had been saying in court: “I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

The Lens is live-blogging the hearings all week.

Tuesday’s live blog

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About Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New York, The Nation, and Maxim. Gogola was a 2011 winner of the Hillman Foundation Sidney Award, for his groundbreaking report in New York magazine detailing regulatory waste in the commercial fishing industry.

  • OPSO Deputy

    nothing on those videos was ever investigated. Gusman tried to cover it up but he can’t do that right either.

  • My, my, my, and we wonder why Africans don’t trust ya’ll. This tape, whether it was shot (4) years ago or (4) days ago, the right question haven’t been asked: For instant, who shot the – why, after all this time, it pops up, and who delivered the video to the news media? But, the Lens, being an INDEPENDENT newsletter, it NEVER amassed those type of investigative questions, huh?

  • benelux


    I see what your getting at, but this time it doesn’t apply. Who shot the video, I think Lester Jones shot the video on his handy dandy cell phone. Why? Cause he could. Why did it come out now? Cause someone had a beef, it was the right thing to do, someone was cooperating with the Feds, etc…How did the media get it? It became public record when it was shown in court.

    Regardless of his color, Gusman has done a poor job. He has spent years neglecting his elected duties. I’m not stupid. Racism is very much alive. If you don’t think Gusman is guilty of it, too, your eyes are not open. Personally, I think you have a problem with it, too.

    The issues at hand were not all brought about in the last 9 years, but Gusman has had the opportunity to make changes, he didn’t. Things have deteriorated and gotten worse. People of all races are tortured, sexually assaulted with toothbrushes and mop handles. Sick people are neglected and left to sink so far into madness that they can’t come back, many sick even die. Fire doors are welded shut, creating a possible death chamber.

    Where is the money? $30 million dollars a year to half staff the prison? To allow a terrible situation to get worse? What, exactly, has Gusman accomplished, regardless of his color? He looked into the faces of families he has destroyed and LIED in Federal Court. He doesn’t care about anyone.He is a sociopath. He needs to go and he needs to be replaced by someone who can move forward. Someone who knows how to do the job. He needs to be incarcerated somewhere they are not allowed to have a cold beer and Popeye’s fried chicken and not in a fancy white collar jail. (I don’t know why those exist anyway, everyone should go to the same jails.)

    I have spent the last 4 years reading every bit of press regarding the OPP. I have read every news story, every blog post, every person’s experience. I do it every single day. If Gusman was white, I would hate him the same. If Gusman was green, I would hate him the same. I don’t hate him cause he is black, I hate him because he is a disgraceful human being. This isn’t the issue for you to bring up race. All races are hurt by Gusman’s crimes.

    Good luck to you, Keith Hudson. I hope you find some peace and I hope I find some peace. And I sort of hope that Gusman rots in jail. (I’m working on that though, it’s not good to hold hate in your heart. It’ll kill ya)

  • benelux

    I thought of somethings Gusman has accomplished….an awesomely fancy, really cool RV to hang out in after a hurricane….a cool kitchen that can produce 25,000 green bologna sandwiches a day!!!…an amazing new jail facility no one will be able to manage cause they don’t know how. He knows what a cutdown tool is, but unfortunately, doesn’t know where to buy them.