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

Several detainees at the New Orleans jail sustained injuries last week — including lacerations and bruising that required medical treatment —  as the result of multiple uses of force by Louisiana Department of Corrections officers that were called in at the request of Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson to conduct shakedowns of the facility, according to sources with knowledge of the operation.

It marks the second time detainees at the jail have been injured during incidents involving DOC officers in the last several weeks, following a mid-August raid to break up a multi-day protest inside a housing unit that sent several detainees to the hospital.  

Following the August raid, Hutson gave shifting statements about the nature and extent of detainees’ injuries. And her office has been slow to release information — such as use of force reports or surveillance video —  about what happened. 

Despite pledging to improve transparency at the office, Hutson has again remained mostly tight-lipped about the recent shakedown operation.

A spokesperson for Hutson confirmed that the Sheriff’s Office requested DOC assistance for the shakedown — which occurred on Thursday, Sept. 8 — but did not respond to specific questions regarding alleged injuries or uses of force. 

“The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has a long-standing relationship with the Department of Corrections to request DOC assistance for systematic searches (shakedowns) of the facility,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Our request for DOC assistance is no different from other sheriff’s offices that routinely request DOC’s help to conduct shakedowns.”

The injuries and uses of force do not appear to be included in a weekly incident report that was released by the Sheriff’s Office Friday, September 9. The office began releasing the reports in late August  in order to “inform the public about non-major incidents that occurred during the week at the Orleans Justice Center.”

The sheriff’s office declined to say if they had any written agreement with the DOC related to shakedowns or other operations inside the jail. The Department of Corrections referred questions regarding the incident to the sheriff’s office.

Little information offered on August raid, September shakedown

Hutson, who defeated long-time former Sheriff Marlin Gusman in an election last December and took office in May of this year, ran on a “progressive platform,” promising to reform the culture of the office and reduce the use of force against detainees. She also vowed to be more transparent regarding what was going inside of the jail.

But her administration has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency, by everyone from New Orleans City Council members to the federal magistrate judge overseeing parts of the consent decree.

Family members of detainees allegedly injured in the August raid have also complained about a lack of communication and information from Hutson’s office. 

On Sunday, Aug. 14, following a multi-day protest over jail conditions, DOC officers assisted sheriff’s deputies in retaking housing pod 2E, which had been barricaded by detainees. During the raid, officers deployed bean-bag rounds, flash bangs, and a sting ball grenade. While the sheriff has described the resulting injuries as “minor,” multiple detainees who spoke to The Lens said they were hospitalized with broken bones, collapsed lungs, and other serious injuries. Several of them said they were kicked and beaten while on the ground by DOC officers. 

The Sheriff’s Office still has not released any reports or videos from the incident or responded to the questions regarding the reported injuries, citing an ongoing investigation. As for the recent shakedowns, sources who spoke to The Lens, on the condition that they not be identified, did not offer specific details on how and why force was used. 

Sheriff’s Office deputies are legally required to follow policies that have been developed and implemented under a long-running federal consent decree — which was approved by a federal judge in 2013 to remedy poor conditions and violence that have plagued the jail for years — with input from a team of federal monitors, the United States Department of Justice, and civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated in the jail. That includes the Sheriff’s Office’s use-of-force policy, which prohibits hitting or kicking non-combative detainees as well as the use of any kind of force as retaliation or punishment. 

That policy applies to “all OPSO employees, contractors, volunteers and inmates” but it is unclear whether OPSO believes those restrictions also apply to Department of Corrections officers. 

It appears that not even deputies have been consistently following the policies. In their most recent report, which was released in July and covered jail compliance between April and September of last year, the federally appointed monitoring team found in a review of use of force incidents that sheriff’s deputies often failed to follow the use-of-force policy, and that the reports “demonstrate a lack of de-escalation efforts as required by the Consent Judgment” and that  “seldom is mental health staff called upon to assist in de-escalation although a majority of the inmates upon whom force is used are on the mental health caseload.” 

Hutson has said that she would have the “systems in place” to come into compliance with the federal consent judgment during her first 12 months in office. 

It is also not clear how frequently DOC officers have actually been used to conduct shakedowns — where officers search multiple detainees and their cells for contraband — at the jail prior to last week. When asked when the last time DOC helped conduct a shakedown, the spokesperson said that they “don’t discuss precise intervals for security reasons.” When asked how many times they have helped with shakedowns since 2015, the spokesperson did not respond. 

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...