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

Anthony Hunt, a man who died in the New Orleans jail last year of a drug overdose, was left in a flooded jail cell overnight prior to his death — despite expressing suicidal ideations, collapsing suddenly in front of another detainee, and mostly failing to respond when addressed by jail staff — according to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of his family in May.

He was pronounced dead the next morning, on June 22 , 2021. He was 37 years old. 

In addition to ignoring Hunt’s “obvious medical emergency,” the lawsuit says that deputies at the jail failed to properly screen Hunt for contraband when he entered the facility. Later, when jail staff found a small bag of drugs in Hunt’s cell, they removed it — but then quickly lost track of it after setting it on a desk. 

“The baggie of drugs later disappeared from the desk and….no one at OPSO could determine where the drugs had gone or who had moved them,” the lawsuit alleges. 

The suit says that both the negligence of individual jail staff members, along with a broader failure of the sheriff’s office to fully staff the facility, and to provide adequate training and supervision, contributed to Hunt’s death — which his lawyers described his death as a “suicide via drug overdose.” 

“Mr. Hunt’s death was the result of multiple failures at the OJC, including a failure to recognize and respond appropriately to Mr. Hunt’s obvious medical emergency, a failure to adequately staff the facility to ensure Mr. Hunt’s safety, and a failure to properly screen Mr. Hunt to prevent illegal drugs from entering the facility,” the suit reads. “These failures are the continuation of unconstitutional patterns and practices at the Orleans Parish jail stretching back to at least 2008.” 

For nearly a decade, the jail has been under a federal consent decree due to conditions that were found unconstitutional —including a lack of medical and mental health care and a high level of violence. 

When Hunt died last year, former Sheriff Marlin Gusman was still in charge of the facility. But in May, weeks before the lawsuit was filed, newly elected Sheriff Susan Hutson took office, promising to provide improved medical and mental health care, and make the jail safer for detainees. So far, that has proven difficult — just last month, two people incarcerated in the jail died in a matter of days

Both Gusman and Hutson are named in the suit — Hutson in her official capacity —  along with 10 OPSO employees and two from Wellpath, the jail’s contracted medical provider. 

Gusman did not respond to requests for comment from The Lens. A spokesperson for Hutson declined to comment, and a Wellpath representative said it was the company’s policy not to comment on active litigation.  

It is not clear if the OPSO and Wellpath employees named in the suit are still working at the jail, or if they were disciplined in relation to the conduct alleged in the suit.  

The Lens requested any reports related to Hunt’s death from the Sheriff’s Office n July of 2021, but was told the case was still under investigation, and would be provided when complete. When Gusman left office in May, none had been produced. 

In response to another request made this week, a lawyer for OPSO said that they were working to identify and review the reports. 

The lawyers representing Hunt’s family, Stephen Haedicke and Gary Bizal, declined to comment for this story. 

Drugs found, then lost

Hunt was booked the New Orleans jail on June 11, 2021, following a stand-off with New Orleans police related to an out of state warrant in Mississippi, where he was wanted for murder. He was held in the city on a $1 million bond while awaiting extradition. 

According to the lawsuit, OPSO policy at the time was to scan anyone entering the jail twice using an x-ray body scanner. But when Hunt entered the facility, he was only scanned once, “and his arms were crossed in a way that violated the protocol.” (According to the suit, OJC policy says that detainees “are to hold their hands down by their sides so that any contraband can be visible in the scan.”)

​​Still, the lawsuit says that the images should have been enough for OPSO security to see that Hunt was bringing something into the jail. 

“Nevertheless, the scanned images of Mr. Hunt showed that he was able to conceal an object in his hand, which is believed to have been the contraband drugs (Fentanyl) that he later ingested to commit suicide,” it reads.

According to disciplinary records obtained by The Lens last year, Hunt broke several computer monitors in the booking area of the jail as he was being processed in, and according to the suit,  was kept in lock-down in a cell with a single small window in the door and a food slot for the majority of his time at OJC.  

Then, on June 21, ten days after Hunt was booked, he broke the sprinkler in his cell. According to the lawsuit, he did so in response to deputies refusing to let him out. 

Water flooded his cell and spilled out into the dayroom and other surrounding areas. Deputies struggled for nearly an hour to get it turned off because they could not get the door to a utility closet open, the suit claims. 

During the course of the cleanup, a deputy found a small white bag of powder in Hunt’s cell, which contained fentanyl. The deputy gave it to a lieutenant. The lieutenant brought it up to a supervisor’s office and set it on a supervisor’s desk, where it eventually went missing.  

But, according to the suit, the drugs were not reported to any other OPSO staff, and no further action was taken to ensure additional drugs were not on the pod. That, the suit argues, precluded any further investigation into the origin of the drugs or a further search of the pod that Hunt was being held on. 

“If the drugs had been reported, then the cells on pod 1D would have been searched,” the suit reads, “and Mr. Hunt’s later suicide using the drugs in his possession could have been prevented.” 

Remained in flooded cell

Despite the surrounding areas being mopped up, Hunt was kept in a flooded cell where several inches of water had pooled because OPSO Capt. Stephen Carter ordered that the water from the sprinkler should not be removed from Hunt’s cell. 

Carter’s order, the suit claims, was given “maliciously and with the intent to punish Mr. Hunt for the destruction of the sprinkler head in the cell.”

For the rest of his time at OJC, Hunt remained in a flooded cell. 

Several people encountered Hunt after the sprinkler incident and before he died. But the lawsuit claims that they all ignored obvious signs that Hunt was experiencing a mental health crisis, and later a medical emergency.  

When a mental health professional from Wellpath, Terrie Ducote, came to talk to him after he told a deputy he was feeling suicidal, they observed Hunt sitting in his underwear on a flooded floor and was “essentially non-verbal, refusing to answer questions out loud.” According to the suit, Ducote claims that when she asked him if he was feeling suicidal, he shook his head “no,” but indicated that he wanted to get out of his cell. Ducote said that “she could not help him in that regard.”

The lawsuit says that Ducote’s “supposed assessment of his risk of suicide consisted of looking at him through a window in a solid metal door and then yelling at him through that door,” and  that Ducote “either knew or should have known that he posed a serious risk of self-harm.”  

Later that evening, Hunt collapsed while speaking to a detainee outside his cell who was helping with water cleanup. OPSO Sgt. Mary Black went to Hunt’s cell, where she saw him lying on the floor. But she apparently did not consider it a medical emergency.

“Instead of calling for medical help, Black took a broom stick and stuck it through the food-trap door of Hunt’s cell,” the suit alleges. “She poked at him several times, and, according to Black, Mr. Hunt moved a little and was apparently still breathing. Defendant Black told the inmate who had reported Mr. Hunt’s collapse that Mr. Hunt was fine and the inmate should return to his cell,” 

At some point in the middle of the night, an OPSO lieutenant realized that Hunt was being held in a flooded cell, and raised objections to Capt. Carter. But Carter refused to change his order. 

The next morning, Hunt would not come to his cell door to get breakfast. Sgt. Black again went to Hunt’s cell and poked him with a brook stick through the food slot.  Although Hunt “allegedly lifted his head in response to the pokes, he remained basically unresponsive and would not come to the slot to retrieve his tray.”  

“Instead, he simply laid his head back down,” the suit reads. Still, no medical personnel were called. 

An hour later, another OPSO employee, Captain Glenn Powell, also observed Hunt “unconscious on his mattress in the water on the floor of his cell.” Powell yelled at Hunt, and claims he heard him snoring and making sounds, according to the lawsuit. 

He also declined to call any medical staff,  and continued on with his jail duties until he encountered a Wellpath social worker, who he asked to check on Hunt. 

That social worker found Hunt “lying unconscious in a pool of water,” according to the suit. But he waited 30 minutes for Powell to return to the tier until he called for an medical emergency response team. They administered Narcan and other treatments, but it was apparently too late.

“The team found Mr. Hunt still lying in about two inches of water on the floor of his cell,” the suit reads. “He was already cold to the touch and remained unresponsive. The team had to pull him out of the water so that they could treat him. As they did so, they found a baggie of white powder fentanyl in his hand.”

Hunt was taken to University Medical Center, and was pronounced dead not long after.

No responses have been filed to the complaint. The case has been assigned to Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Sarah Vance. 

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...