Orleans Parish Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson, pictured on Feb. 2, 2022. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

A federal magistrate on Thursday ripped Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s office for a lack of transparency related to a series of violent incidents that have taken place at city’s jail over the last several months — including two deaths, several stabbings and a protest last weekend that ended with officers firing bean bag rounds, flash bangs, and a sting ball grenade into a barricaded jail pod. 

“Not one phone call to the court about any of those things,” Judge Michael North said at a status conference on the jail’s long-running federal consent decree, a court oversight agreement put in place nearly a decade ago to improve living conditions and reduce violence inside the jail. “Nothing. Silence. Crickets. Nothing from your office to the court to tell us anything about any of those incidents.”

Hutson was not present at the hearing, but Graham Bosworth, an attorney representing the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, told North that “transparency on that level will improve this instant.” 

North also raised concerns about a lack of communication or transparency from the Sheriff’s office regarding who has been involved in a  series of meetings related to structural improvements the office wants to make to the jail. 

North initially called the Thursday hearing over concerns that Hutson was holding backdoor meetings to discuss the possibility of retrofitting the current jail in lieu of building a new mental health and medical facility known as Phase III, despite repeated court orders to move ahead with the 89-bed facility. 

Hutson opposed Phase III during her successful campaign for sheriff last year. And Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has fought — unsuccessfully —  in federal court to get out of building it. They have both advocated for doing internal construction on the Orleans Justice Center, current jail facility to make it more conducive to providing care for detainees with serious medical and mental-health needs. 

In a court filing on Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office said Hutson has indeed been holding meetings, but they were not related to the retrofit proposal. Rather, they were about “safety enhancements” that the office wants to make to the jail while still moving forward with Phase III.

“It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Sheriff’s meetings with constituents and experts and others may have been misperceived as an attempt to advance the alternative long-term ‘retrofit’ solution, rather than for what they are – an attempt to enhance the safety of the individuals who reside and work in the OJC,” lawyers for Hutson wrote.

North accepted that explanation regarding the meetings, but said that the misunderstanding could have been avoided if Hutson had simply been up front about what was going on prior to the “11th-hour filing.” 

And he dismissed an argument from Sheriff’s Office attorneys that Hutson has a First Amendment right not to disclose to the court who else has participated in the meetings. The Wednesday filing said that doing so “would have a chilling effect on the willingness of her constituents and others to meet with her and would adversely affect the work and rights of elected state officials.”

On Thursday, North called that suggestion “bogus.” 

“It’s a bold move, but it ain’t going to work here,” he said. “What I see is a sheriff that doesn’t want to answer my questions. … I am trying to find out whether I am dealing with a public servant who is not just talking about transparency but actively engaging in it. And that is not what I’m seeing.”

Safety enhancements

The structural improvements Hutson is hoping to make at the jail are outlined in a letter she sent to North in late July. They include removing shelving and other structures in the jail that detainees can use to fashion weapons, adding slots in cell doors to communicate and pass food through, and adding railings on the mezzanines of certain pods. 

In addition, she said that she wants to expand the jail’s “programming space” to facilitate things like “musical programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, drug treatment programs, and formerly incarcerated mentorship programs.”

“We desperately need access to therapy space, both individual and group, to address violence between our residents,” Hutson wrote. “We also need to provide our residents with access to programming that will encourage cooperative behavior.”

Finally, Hutson said she hopes to expand the capacity for both in-person and video visitation between attorneys and their clients who are incarcerated in the jail, and reduce the need for deputies to transport detainees to those visits. 

(After Hutson took over in May, the jail implemented a system in which attorneys must schedule their visits with clients rather than simply showing up at the jail. The system has frustrated defense attorneys, but her administration has said it is necessary due to a lack of staffing.)

All in all, she estimates that the costs of the physical improvements will run just over $3 million. She also is hoping to increase pay for OPSO security deputies by 20 percent across the board. There is no estimate for that cost just yet. (The Sheriff’s Office’s total estimated 2022 budget for salaries, including both administrative and security personnel, was $27.6 million, according to a budget breakdown provided to the New Orleans City Council last year.)

“In my view there are a number of suggestions in that letter that have a great deal of merit,” North said at the hearing on Thursday. But he also said that the monitoring team should have been more involved in the process of coming up with the suggested improvements. 

“I wish the sheriff was here so she could hear what I’m saying,” North told Bosworth. “For the record, I invited her. I would prefer to be able to have these discussions with her.”

Meanwhile, the city has pushed back the estimated timeline for completing Phase III, and upped its estimated price tag. 

In their latest status report, attorneys for the city of New Orleans said the estimated completion date for the project is in March of 2025, a several-month delay from their prior update. And they said the current estimate for construction of the facility is $60 million, an 18 percent increase from their initial estimate of $51 million.  

FEMA funds allocated post-Katrina to replace damaged jail facilities will cover $36 million, according to the city. However, the city will need an extension beyond FEMA’s current construction deadline of August 2023 in order to be eligible for that reimbursement funding. 

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...