From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Last summer, a team of federally appointed monitors who track conditions at the New Orleans jail as part of a long-running federal consent decree had some good news: They found that for the first time since it went into effect in 2013, the jail was in partial or substantial compliance with all the provisions outlined in the consent decree.

But a new report released by the monitors on Tuesday said that overall improvements at the jail have stalled, and in some cases regressed. 

“In summary, the Monitors find that safety, medical and mental health care, and environment conditions of inmates held in both the Orleans Justice Center (OJC) and the Temporary Detention Center (TDC) has made little improvement” since their last review in July, the report reads.  “In some areas, compliance has backslid.” 

The monitors found that the jail was still struggling with persistent understaffing, violence, conducting investigations in a timely manner, and providing care for detainees with mental health needs — which is the majority of the population.  According to the report, over seventy percent of the average daily population at the jail is on the mental health caseload, and over fifty percent have been prescribed psychotropic medication. 

In November, Sheriff Marlin Gusman retook control of the jail from an appointed Independent Compliance Director, the first time the elected sheriff will oversee the day-to-day operations at the jail since 2016. But Tuesday’s report only covers the period between April 1, 2020 and September 30, 2020.

Still, the new report represents a setback for Gusman, who has argued that it is time for the jail to move on from the consent decree. 

In a legal filing last May, lawyers for Gusman accused the monitors of having unreasonable expectations and attempting to create a “jail utopia.” And in their previous report in July, the monitors warned that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office was resisting attempts to improve conditions, and even showed animosity to individual staff members for providing them with data and information.  

Given the most recent report, the monitors’ oversight of the jail doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. In order for the consent decree to be terminated, the jail must be in substantial compliance with every part of it for two years. Currently, it is in substantial compliance with just 64 percent. 

‘Follow through is clearly lacking’

In addition, the jail is now entirely out of compliance with four consent decree requirements — all related to suicide prevention at the jail. Monitors found that a failure by the jail to “provide adequate, appropriate, well trained, and supervised suicide prevention and management services is extremely serious.”

Bcause of staffing shortages, a number of staff conducting suicide watches “had no documented additional and specific training regarding conducting suicide watches or documentation requirements to demonstrate the adequate knowledge, skill, and ability to address the needs of inmates at risk for suicide,” the report found. “Inmates on suicide precautions or watch continue to obtain contraband that can be used to harm themselves.”

The monitors said that staff who were supposed to responsible for suicide watch regularly told them that they didn’t actually know what that entailed. 

“Security staff were found to be responsible for ‘suicide watch’ during the site visit, but the deputies routinely stated that they did not understand what their duties were to perform suicide watches,” the report reads. 

Last year, The Lens reported that the death of Robert Rettman, a detainee at the jail, was being investigated as a suicide after he was found unresponsive in his cell just two days after being booked. The Orleans Parish Coroner found that Rettman’s cause of death was “asphyxia due to hanging.” A spokesperson for  the coroner’s office did not immediately respond to a request for Rettman’s manner of death — which was still under investigation at the time. 

Rettman was one of three deaths at the jail in 2020, making it the deadliest year at the facility since 2017 .

The monitors also said that while there were increased challenges faced by the jail due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not excuse the shortcomings at the facility. 

“While some of the regression is due to the strain put on the system by COVID, much is due to a failure to follow the policies and procedures that have been put in place,” the monitors wrote. 

And there was some concern specifically about lacking measures the sheriff’s office was taking to prevent the spread inside the facility. 

When the monitors toured the jail, they wrote, some staff and detainees at the jail weren’t properly wearing their masks, and when sanitary concerns were brought up to supervisors they attempted to “explain them away” by “stating they have told the inmate to correct the issue.” 

“If true, follow through is clearly lacking,” the monitors concluded.

The jail has seen a number of spikes in COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic, with over 90 detainees at one point testing positive. A spokesperson for the office said that there are currently three detainees who are positive for the virus, along ten employees of the Sheriff’s office, and two employees of Wellpath, the jails medical care provider. 

TDC and Phase III

The report is the first since detainees with acute and sub-acute mental illness were moved from the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, state prison near Baton Rouge — where they were held as a yearslong agreement with the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections — back to the New Orleans jail. Last year, following an order by the federal judge overseeing the consent decree, the city renovated a jail facility known as the Temporary Detention Center to house those detainees until a permanent facility was built. 

According to Tuesday’s report, most of them have now been moved to the TDC — though a few remain in the main facility. The monitors noted that while the TDC was a “necessary interim step given no satisfactory housing for acute inmates in OJC,” it “does nothing to address the lack of an infirmary and medical housing in OJC and lack of programming space.” 

As in previous reports, the monitors said that a new facility known as Phase III was required to provide adequate mental health and medical care for the detainees at the jail. 

“The construction and occupation of Phase III are critical to the provision of mental and medical health services in accordance with the Consent Judgment,” the report reads. 

Starting in 2019, the city had been moving forward with the construction process for Phase III — which it had agreed to build in 2017 as part of a plan put forward by then compliance director Gary Maynard. But last summer the city abruptly stopped paying the architect, and citing a declining jail population and budget constraints due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they asked a federal judge for permission to abandon the facility altogether.

The other parties in the litigation objected, and after months of legal arguments, the judge denied that request last month. The city said it will appeal his ruling, but at a recent status conference officials anticipated the facility could be completed by late summer of 2023.

Nick 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...