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

Following two deaths at the New Orleans jail over the weekend, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson announced on Sunday evening that all deputies assigned to the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse, where they provide security and transfer detainees between court hearings and the city jail, would be redeployed to the jail in order to “counteract a critical staffing shortage.” 

The decision will force all criminal court proceedings to take place virtually, once again halting in person hearings and jury trials, which were  back in full swing after being almost entirely suspended during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The deaths over the weekend are the first at the jail since Hutson took over the facility in March, and stemmed from two separate incidents.  On Friday, a fight at the jail resulted in injuries to four people — three of whom were sent to the hospital, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. On Saturday, one of those individuals died. OPSO has not released details regarding the incident or the names of those involved. 

Then, on Sunday afternoon, a 47-year-old man who had just been booked into the jail on Friday, died from what investigators believe to be suicide. He was pronounced dead at University Medical Center. The cause of death, according to OPSO, was traumatic brain injury and a cervical spinal fracture.  (OPSO has not released the name of the man, but the agency said he had no “known family and is believed to have been recently unhoused.” They are coordinating with other agencies to search for his next-of-kin.)

Last year, one person in the jail, Anthony Hunt, died of an overdose. Three people died in the facility in 2020. No deaths occured in 2019. 

During her campaign, Hutson was critical of former Sheriff Marlin Gusman for failing to prioritize the safety of people locked up in the jail, and promised to work with federal compliance monitors to improve the conditions of the facility in order to fulfill the mandates of the long-running consent decree it is operating under.  Among other things, Hutson said she would restructure deputy deployment to focus on the jail — which has been severely understaffed in recent years. 

In a statement announcing the decision on Sunday, Hutson said that “a loss of life in OJC will no longer be treated as simply the byproduct of running a jail” by her administration. She said that the problems at the jail were ones she inherited from Gusman.

“I came into this office with a jail that was severely understaffed and unsafe,” she said. “My order calling our deputies in to secure the jail is a temporary measure that I have put in place to protect the lives of every person inside the jail.”

Hutson did not give a timeline of when deputies would be sent back to Criminal District Court. A statement from the office said that she held an “emergency meeting” with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, along with District Attorney Jason Williams and Chief Judge of Criminal District Court Robin Pittman “to discuss her plan to secure the Orleans Justice Center and expressed her commitment to work together to quickly and safely resume normal court operations.”

The office also said deputies assigned to the OPSO Training Academy, Transportation Division, and Kitchen/Warehouse facility, along with some at Civil District Court, would also be redeployed to the jail. 

Last fall, a Gusman official told the New Orleans City Council during budget hearings that the office had over 100 vacancies. And Hutson told The Lens in May that frequently the jail was only staffed at fifty percent of where it should be, and that the structure of the facility was fundamentally unsafe. 

And she has discussed the possibility of changing deputy deployment since taking office, though never suggested that doing so could disrupt regular court functions. 

In an interview last month, Hutson said that sometimes the office has “too many people on a day shift, or too many people in other areas of the department,” and that her office was “looking at most critical needs and where we can move folks.”

She cited the safety at the jail being the number one priority, with the courthouse “being a real close second.” She also said serving restraining orders and other  “very high priority. 

“There are not enough of them to go around,” she said of OPSO deputies. “But we’re trying to switch some things up.”

She also said that her office was looking to bring in “active reserves” — people with POST certification who are not currently full-time law enforcement officers, to help out at the jail. 

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...