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

A man who died over the summer in the New Orleans jail overdosed on fentanyl, Orleans Parish Coroner Dwight McKenna determined last month.* Anthony Hunt was 37 years old when he died on June 22. He had been in jail for less than 2 weeks, pending an extradition to Mississippi. 

The determination comes weeks after court monitors appointed to evaluate the conditions of the jail as part of a federal consent decree put out a report saying contraband and drug use in the facility continues to be an issue they are concerned about.

“The number of overdoses linked to illicit drugs and prescription medication continues to be high,” the report reads

Emily Washington, an attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center who represents people incarcerated in the jail in the consent decree litigation, said that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, along with the jail’s contracted medical provider, Wellpath, need to take stronger steps to make sure contraband doesn’t enter into the facility. 

“Weapons and drugs continue to pose an urgent threat to everyone imprisoned in the Orleans jail,” Washington said. “Deplorably, Anthony Hunt is not the first person to lose his life from outside drugs. We worry deeply that he won’t be the last unless OPSO and Wellpath take more serious and concentrated action to eliminate such contraband and to keep people in their care safe.”

Hunt is the only person who has died in custody at the jail so far this year, and his death fell outside the scope of the most recent monitor’s report, which covered the period between  October 1, 2020, and March 31 of this year. Last year, however, there were three deaths in the facility — the most since 2017. One of those was an overdose as well. 

Hunt, who was a suspect in a Mississippi murder case, was arrested in June 2020, following a standoff with New Orleans police. According to a report from WGNO, Hunt barricaded himself in a hotel on Tulane avenue while making threats to harm himself prior to being taken into custody by U.S. Marshalls and NOPD.

When Hunt died, the Sheriff’s Office put out a press release, saying he had been “found unresponsive in his cell during roll call,” before he was revived and transferred to the University Medical Center. He subsequently passed away at the hospital.  According to the release, the preliminary diagnosis from UMC was “cardiac arrest,” and there was no indication of foul play or self-harm. 

No subsequent information has been released by the Sheriff’s Office since Hunt’s death. Blake Arcuri, an attorney for OPSO, said on Tuesday, in response to a public records request, that an internal investigation is ongoing. 

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office declined to provide a comment.

The coroner’s cause of death determination was completed on Sept. 30. In response to questions from The Lens about why it took over three months to produce an autopsy report, a spokesperson for the Coroner’s Office said that an “average case takes a little over two months to complete” but that “sometimes they take longer for reasons that I am unfamiliar with.”

Part of the reason for continued drug use at the facility, according to the monitor’s report released earlier this month, is the lack of adequate supervision of detainees. The report notes that staff do not consistently conduct security rounds, mandatory posts were sometimes left unstaffed, and that required monthly shakedowns were not performed in “substantial compliance” with the consent judgement. 

“The review of contraband reports clearly indicates reoccurring issues,” the report reads. “There continues to be a serious issue of inmates hoarding medication. … Reports and the site visit reveal that inmates are smuggling in marijuana and hallucinogens to smoke.”

Some drugs are both being sent through the mail, the monitors say, but staff smuggling contraband into the facility is a “significant issue.”

“This indicates the need to analyze the data and develop a corrective action plan to reduce, if not stop, the hoarding of medication, the fashioning of weapons, and the flow of contraband into the facility,” the report says.

Contraband incident reports increased in 2020 from 2018 and 2019  numbers, despite the fact that the jail population has significantly decreased. 

The report also notes that timeliness and quality of death investigations is a concern to the monitors. 

“The three most experienced investigators resigned in 2020 and the lack of experience of those replacing them was evident in the quality of the death investigations initially done by the new investigators,” the report reads

The report was the first to evaluate the jail since Sheriff Marlin Gusman took over day-to-day operations of the facility in November of last year. Prior to that, the jail was being run by a compliance director — a position that was created in 2016 as part of an agreement between the Sheriff’s Office, the United States Department of Justice, and civil rights lawyers representing people incarcerated at the facility in the consent decree litigation. Attorneys with the DOJ and for the detainees said that the jail conditions were continuing to deteriorate under Gusman’s watch. 

But in August 2020, a federal judge ruled that Gusman could regain control of the facility. He officially took over full control on November 27, 2020. 

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date the coroner’s report was completed. The report, provided to The Lens, was dated Oct. 25. After publication, a spokesperson for the Coroner’s Office told The Lens that represented the date it was provided to The Lens in response to a public records request. The report was actually completed on Sept. 30, the spokesperson said. (October 28, 2021)

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...