The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The cause of death of Robert Rettman, a 46-year-old man who died in custody this month at the New Orleans jail, was determined to be “asphyxia due to hanging,” according to the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office. 

Blake Arcuri, a lawyer for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said the office was treating Rettman’s death as a suicide, though Jason Melancon, a spokesperson for Orleans Parish Coroner Dwight McKenna, said the manner of death was still under investigation. 

Aside from confirming that Rettman’s death was being treated as a suicide — which was not mentioned in the initial release announcing his death — OPSO officials declined to respond to multiple questions from The Lens regarding the circumstances of Rettman’s death. Citing an ongoing investigation, officials declined to comment on whether he was being treated for mental illness, on detox protocol, or whether or not deputies were regularly supervising the housing tier where he was being held. 

An online database of 911 calls for service says the incident that led to Rettman’s arrest was an alleged armed robbery with a knife in the 3400 block of St. Charles Avenue. That charge was later reduced to attempted armed robbery. A spokesperson for the police department did not immediately respond to a request for details regarding the incident. 

But Rettman was also booked for possession of Suboxone — a prescription drug used to treat opioid addiction. Possession of Suboxone — which contains Buprenorphine, a schedule III controlled dangerous substance under Louisiana law — is illegal without a prescription in the state. 

It is unclear if Rettman was being treated for opioid withdrawal at the time of his death, which came just two days after he was booked into the jail. 

Rettman’s death was the third death of someone in custody at the New Orleans jail this year, raising questions among people who watch the jail closely about supervision and conditions at the facility. The jail has been under federal court supervision since 2013 — as part of a federal consent decree meant to bring conditions inside into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

And it comes as Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman prepares to resume control of the jail from an appointed compliance director, Darnley Hodge. 

The apparent suicide also arrives as an ongoing controversy and legal battle over whether or not to build a special mental health unit of the jail, known as Phase III, comes to a head in federal court. Whether the current jail has — or could be renovated to have — necessary facilities to manage suicidal detainees is one of the issues being debated.

The other two deaths at the jail this year occured in June. On June 18, 27-year-old Desmond Guild collapsed in the dayroom of his housing tier, and was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Then, just a week later, 35-year-old Christian Freeman similarly collapsed on his housing tier due to an “apparent medical issue.” He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. 

The cause and manner of death for both Guild and Freeman have not been released by the coroner, but during an autopsy it was revealed that Freeman was positive for COVID-19 — despite his death coming just a week after OPSO announced that they believed the virus to be wiped out in the facility.  Neither Guild nor Rettman were positive for the virus.

Initial reports from the coroner’s office also noted that Guild had pulmonary thromboembolus — a blood clot in an artery in the lungs — and Freeman had hypertensive cardiovascular disease. Neither showed evidence of significant trauma.

The three deaths make 2020 already the most deadly year at the jail since 2017, when there were four. In 2018 two people died at the jail, and last year none did.  

Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said the recent deaths of Guild, Freeman, and now Rettman signified “appalling jail conditions and staff negligence.”

“As the death toll climbs, the sheriff must focus on adequate personnel training to provide care for those in his custody,” Dumas said in a statement. “With proper supervision, Robert’s death by apparent suicide could have been avoided.”

Death occurred two days after arrest

Robert Rettman was booked into the New Orleans jail on Aug. 16, and according to the initial information released by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, he was found unresponsive in his cell on the morning of Aug. 18.

An initial court hearing in Rettman’s case took place on Aug. 17, but Rettman was not present for it. Due to the coronavirus, first appearances take place via videoconference, meaning Rettman would have made his appearance from a designated area within the jail, rather than at court. According to court records, Rettman “refused being transported” to the virtual hearing. It is unclear why. 

The next day, the morning of Rettman’s death, OPSO officials say that a deputy “had spoken with Rettman earlier about his request for a shower and information about his court date.” The same deputy then found him unresponsive in his cell at 10:16 AM. Rettman was then transported to University Medical Center and pronounced dead at 11:05 AM.

It is unclear when exactly the deputy initially talked to Rettman, or how much time had passed since the conversation and when Rettman was found unresponsive.

According to supervision procedures outlined in the federal consent decree, deputies are required to make rounds of general housing tiers every 30 minutes, and 15 minutes for special population tiers.

But in the most recent report issued by federally appointed monitors in July, however, notes that the supervision rounds were “not consistently conducted as per OPSO policy.”

“OPSO has significantly improved in the conducting and documenting of security rounds (30 minutes or 15 minutes depending on the unit),” the report said. “However, review of records, observations, and investigations clearly indicates that rounds and direct supervision surveillance are still not consistently conducted as per OPSO policy.”

The monitors wrote that “direct supervision requires surveillance of all of the inmates and cannot be properly performed by sitting behind a desk or in the control module” and that it “requires walking around the unit, looking into the individual cells, and actively engaging with the inmates.”

“During the tour, units were noted to be unstaffed, including mandatory posts,” the monitors wrote. “If staff are not present, it impossible to make the required rounds”

As with supervision, the detoxification protocol at the facility for detainees going through withdrawal has gotten better since the monitors’ first report in 2014. In one early report, the monitoring team noted that according to the Health Services Administrator there had been “no training of custody or health care staff on detoxification and withdrawal” and that there were “no training records and no oversight.”

But while the most recent report from the court monitors notes significant improvements, it also  specifically points out that “there are still lags” to administering detainees going through withdrawal with their “first dose of vital medication.”

Ongoing legal wrangling over mental health care in consent decree case

Earlier this month, following a generally positive report from the federal court monitors, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk gave the OK for Sheriff Gusman to retake control of the jail from appointed compliance director Darnley Hodge, who has been in charge since 2018. 

Hodge is still in charge of day-to-day operations at the jail, according to Phil Stelly, a spokesperson for OPSO. Stelly said that no date had been set for when Sheriff Gusman would take over.

In court filings arguing that he should once again be in charge of the jail, Gusman has blasted the federal monitors for holding the jail to unreasonable standards and for attempting to create what he described as a “jail utopia.” (Gusman also argued that the consent decree should be lifted altogether, but the federal judge dismissed that claim, and said Gusman could bring it up at a later time.)

Meanwhile, a hearing is set in October to determine whether or not the City of New Orleans can halt plans to build a new jail building, known as Phase III, primarily intended to house detainees with acute mental illness — some of who are being held at Elayn Hunt Correctional facility, a state prison in St. Gabriel. 

The city has argued that it doesn’t have the money for the new facility, and that it is unnecessary given the improved medical and mental health care at the jail and the decreasing jail population.

But the other parties in the lawsuit have opposed the city’s request to halt work on the facility. Attorneys representing inmates at the jail argued that the current jail contains “structural deficiencies” that “ include the inability to safely house prisoners with acute and sub-acute mental illness, tier mezzanine levels which allow prisoners with mental illness to engage in self-harm, a lack of an adequate number of suicide-resistant cells, and a lack of programming space for individual and group therapy.”

More recently, the city suggested that the current jail could be renovated to accommodate those inmates returning from Hunt, or that the Temporary Detention Center — another facility on the jail campus — could be converted into a permanent facility. Renovations of TDC for the Hunt inmates are nearly complete, but were meant only as a temporary solution until Phase III is completed.

The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition has come out in favor of a retrofit of the current jail building, which will not add any additional jail beds or outside infrastructure, and have advocated for more robust mental health care outside of the jail. 

In a letter to Africk, they argued that the retrofit option would allow the city to use leftover funds to “build a community wellness center to care for people with serious mental illness outside of the carceral system.”

In response to Robert Rettman’s death, Dumas of OPPRC, said that the “community will continue to demand transparency and accountability to protect those still trapped inside.”

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...