Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

Federally appointed monitors released a report regarding conditions at the New Orleans jail on Monday, which found that “safety, medical and mental health care, and environment conditions of inmates” had “made meaningful and noteworthy improvement” since their previous report, which was released in January.

For the first time, the monitors found that the jail was in at least partial compliance with all 174 provisions of the 2013 federal consent decree, which was put in place as part of a federal lawsuit to bring conditions at the notorious jail into compliance with the U.S.  Constitution. 

According to the monitoring team, the jail has reached substantial compliance with 118 provisions of the consent decree and partial compliance with 56. 

The finding comes as Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is trying to retake control of the day-to-day operations of the jail back from a court-appointed compliance director—currently, Darnley Hodge. A compliance director has run the jail since 2016, after the Sheriff’s Office was unable to show adequate progress in meeting the terms of the consent decree. The position was created as a compromise. Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, which is a party to the consent decree suit, had pushed for a full federal takeover of the jail.

But despite the positive findings, the monitors’ report also noted that there was “significant work to be done,” and warned that the Sheriff’s Office was resisting attempts to help them set up internal systems of review that would allow the jail to sustain compliance. 

“Instead, there is often pushback against the Monitors and claims that the Monitors are ‘demanding perfection,’ ‘moving the goalpost,’” they wrote, “or that the Consent Judgment only requires them to review data, not to remedy the obvious deficiencies any meaningful review would reveal.”

That resistance, the monitors noted, was not just directed towards them, but internally towards employees of the Sheriff’s Office.

“Even more disturbing is that when individual staff members of OPSO have followed the guidance provided and collected and analyzed performance data, there has been, at times, a reluctance to address the deficiencies and, in some instances, animosity shown towards OPSO staff who provided the information.”

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Findings may benefit Gusman’s effort to back control

The monitors conducted a “virtual tour” of the facility in May, after an in-person tour, scheduled for mid-March was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report they released on Monday has the potential to influence several recent negotiations in federal court regarding the jail. 

In late May, about a week after the monitors’ conducted their virtual tour, Sheriff Marlin Gusman asked the federal judge overseeing the consent decree litigation to hand him back over control of the jail from Hodge, the jail’s second compliance director since Gusman was sidelined in 2016. 

In his request to the court, Gusman said that the monitors were attempting to create a “jail utopia” reflective of their own “personal preferences and idealistic aspirations.” 

But the general improvement noted in Monday’s recent report will likely increase the probability Gusman soon will be running the jail.  According to the agreement that created the Compliance Director position, the jail must show “material progress” in achieving substantial compliance with the consent judgement. 

Parties in the litigation — including the City of New Orleans, the United States Department of Justice, and attorneys for inmate plaintiffs’ class — have all filed motions in support of terminating the compliance director position and returning control of the jail to Gusman, and Hodge himself told The Lens he thinks it is time for his position to be vacated. 

(Hodge also said he believes the jail is in substantial compliance with 100 percent of the consent decree. The monitoring team clearly disagreed, finding the jail was only in substantial compliance with about 68 percent of the order, and in partial compliance with 32 percent.)

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the consent decree litigation, has yet to rule on Gusman’s request.

Phase III

Meanwhile, attorneys for the city of New Orleans have recently made an attempt to get out from under a court order that mandates they continue the development and construction of a jail building known as Phase III, which would be used, in part, to house acutely mentally-ill inmates currently being held at a state facility. 

The city has argued that the new building is unnecessary due to the diminished population and improved mental health and medical care at the jail, in addition to being unworkable financially.

But the monitors said in their report on Monday and they still felt Phase III was necessary and were surprised by the city’s decision to halt construction planning.

“The Monitors and other stakeholders were unaware of the stoppage as the City had not adhered to the agreement for quarterly executive committee meetings with all stakeholders,” they wrote. “The construction and occupation of Phase III are critical to the provision of mental and medical health services in accordance with the Consent Judgment.”

But Sade Dumas, Executive Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), which has been organizing to stop the Phase III expansion, said that the monitors’ report shows that in fact the administration of care has more to do with adequate providers and staffing, not physical infrastructure. 

“Medical and mental health care within OPP has made noteworthy improvements since the last jail monitor report,” she said in a statement. “This care comes from people, not carceral facilities. The City does not need a new Phase III jail building when improved care is already being facilitated through Tulane University’s hard work.”

Dumas was referring to a partnership between Tulane University psychiatrists and the jails health care provider, Wellpath. The jail monitors themselves have repeatedly acknowledged the benefits of the partnership, and in the most recent report said that “resources from Tulane University continue to be particularly helpful in providing mental health care.”

Rather than increase the size of the jail, OPPRC and other advocates have pushed for retrofitting a floor of the current jail building to house the inmates with serious mental illness, while also encouraging the city to invest in more robust mental health care infrastructure outside of the criminal justice system to avoid locking up people with mental illness in the first place. 

There has been no ruling yet on the city’s motion to halt work on Phase III. Hodge last week opposed the motion, arguing that Phase III was necessary to provide constitutionally adequate care, and that there was plenty of federal money for the project. Attorneys for the inmate plaintiffs’ class are set to file their motion later this week, and eventually there will be a hearing on the matter where the different parties can call witnesses and present their case in front of Judge Africk. 

The monitors report dealt only briefly with the jail’s COVID-19 response, noting that they observed that furniture and other items are not sanitized between uses and that the jail should increase the accessibility of cleaning supplies to inmates.

Perhaps the most significant incidents at the jail in recent months were the sudden death of two inmates less than a week apart in late June, one of whom was positive for the coronavirus at the time he died. But while the report briefly acknowledges the deaths, they are not fully addressed because they happened outside the scope of its time frame, which technically only extended until March 31. 

27-year-old Desmond Guild died on June 19 after collapsing from an “unspecified medical issue,” according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Then, on June 25, 35-year-old Chistian Freeman died after he, too, collapsed at the jail. During their autopsies, it was revealed that while Guild had been negative for COVID-19 at the time of his death, Freeman had been positive.

A cause of death has not been released for either Guild or Freeman. 

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...