There were no security deputies on a pod in the New Orleans jail where a fight broke out on Friday afternoon that left one detainee dead and two others hospitalized, an official with the Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s Office told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee under questioning on Wednesday.
The revelation came during a sometimes tense council meeting following a deadly weekend at the jail. In addition to Philip Soublet, the 31-year-old who was killed in the Friday’s fight, another man, 46-year-old Chad Neyland, died by what investigators believe was a suicide on Sunday afternoon.
In response to the two incidents, Hutson made a decision on Sunday night to reassign deputies who provide security for the Criminal District Court in order to increase staffing at the jail, saying it was experiencing a “critical staffing shortage.” The decision halted all in-person proceedings at the courthouse on Monday, and left judges and attorneys scrambling to inform jurors, clients, witnesses, and others who were scheduled to show up at court that their hearings would either be canceled or held virtually. On Monday night, Hutson and the court reached a deal where she would provide some deputies so in-person hearings could resume in a limited capacity.
Chief Judge of Criminal District Court Robin Pittman, who also testified in front of the committee on Wednesday, along with some city council members were critical of the sudden decision by Hutson to pull deputies from the court house. But on Wednesday, Hutson defended it.
“I was right to sound the alarm,” she said. “I was right to take immediate action.”
Hutson has been in charge of the jail, which she promised to dramatically improve the safety and conditions of, for just 45 days. On Wednesday, she said that her team was still scrambling to get a handle on the office amid high-level staff turnover and after what she has described as a near total lack of cooperation from previous Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s administration during her transition.
But Hutson has said she hopes to get the facility into compliance with a long-running federal consent decree within her first year in office. And among the persistent issues the monitors have pointed to is a lack of staffing in the facility. In their last report, in October of last year, the monitors said that at the jail there were frequently “housing units and control rooms with no assigned staffing.”
“Further, almost daily, assigned staff leave housing units and control pods unattended for meal breaks and other duties,” they wrote.
Hutson tried to be circumspect about answering questions from the Council regarding how many staff manned specific parts of the jail on Wednesday calling it a security issue. (She had also declined to discuss the issue with reporters.) Defending her position to withhold certain information, she told the council that “one of the incidents that occurred this weekend occurred because the residents knew who was on the pod and who wasn’t.”
But shortly after, Councilwoman Helena Moreno questioned her about the incident.
“With the fight between the three individuals that resulted in death, unfortunately, with that, you had said that somehow the inmates had learned about the staffing levels in the pod,” Moreno said. “Was there staff present in the pod?”
Pearlina Thomas, an assistant sheriff, responded that there had been staff in an oversight module where they could watch the pod.
“So there was staff in the oversight module, but not in the pod?” Moreno asked.
“I can’t say at that moment, no,” Thomas said.
“Ok so it doesn’t seem like at that moment there was staff in the pod,” Moreno said.
At that point Hutson interjected, and told the council that she could not discuss too much regarding an ongoing investigation. She promised to be transparent once the investigation was complete.
Moreno said she understood that, but said the council still deserved to have some information.
“If there wasn’t staff in a pod that resulted in a horrible fight and a death, I think that that’s something that this council needs to understand,” Moreno said. “Particularly since the sheriff had to take emergency steps to try to figure out how to redeploy staff.”
Prior to Hutson, Chief Criminal Court Judge Pittman, along with Judge Tracey Fleming Davalier and Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik, gave their version being left without court security early this week.
“Sunday evening, I was being advised that she [Hutson] was going to have to pull security from Criminal District Court,” Pittman said. “I offered some alternatives, and asked if we could possibly get a grace period. It was explained to me that it was a crisis, and I couldn’t get the grace period and the alternatives could not be accommodated.”
Pittman said that initially she was told that detainees in the jail would be made available virtually for court, but that didn’t happen.
Some council members seemed to share the frustration.
“I understand there are challenges at the jail,” Councilman J.P. Morrell said. “But the expectation, because the sheriff wears many hats, is that you have to be able to walk and chew bubble gum. We have to do multiple jobs at once.”
Later on, Hutson responded to Morrell’s comment.
”I’m sure the council member wasn’t being flippant about the deaths at OJC when he made this comment, but I want this council to know that not only can we chew gum and walk at the same time, we are flying this broken plane, keeping in air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, while also fixing it,” Hutson said.
Rob Kazik said that prior to Sunday’s decision, the courthouse regularly had 30 deputies providing security. Now, the sheriff has committed 18. But in terms of a more permanent solution that will allow court to operate fully in person at the pace that it was happening before, Kazik said Hutson had “been noncommittal at this point.”
Pittman said that under state law, the sheriff has an obligation to provide security for the court, and Councilman Eugene Green said that “the law was not being followed relative to the provision of security.”
But Hutson said that the two deaths at the jail over the weekend had “destabilized” the facility, and urgent action was needed to prevent further potential incidents.
“Mr. Neyland died on a Sunday,” Hutson said. “And I am hearing that was inconvenient for our criminal legal system. But that’s when it occurred.”
In a statement, the Orleans Public Defenders, said that while they appreciated the sheriff taking the safety of their incarcerated clients seriously, the court closure could mean that they stay in jail longer.
“The safety of our clients who are incarcerated at OJC is paramount, and we support efforts to increase the safety of our clients and everyone working in the Sheriff’s office,” Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokesperson for the department said in a statement on Monday. “At the same time, today’s courthouse shutdown due to a lack of deputies is yet another setback to moving our criminal legal system forward….We hope Sheriff Hutson is acting with urgency, thoughtfulness, and diligence to resolve the jail’s staffing problems, while maintaining the safety of those in her care.”