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

Back in September, officers with the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections conducted a shakedown of the New Orleans jail during which several detainees were injured in use-of-force incidents, according to sources with knowledge of the operation. 

Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson confirmed that her office had requested DOC assistance, but she declined to provide details regarding why force was used against detainees, the extent of the injuries, or whether or not the believed DOC officers were subject to OPSO use-of-force policy — which was developed as part of the jail’s long-running federal consent decree, meant to bring conditions of the facility up to constitutional standards. 

A weekly incident report log put out by the Sheriff’s office — which Hutson has regularly touted as a new measure of transparency — did not offer any insights. The DOC shakedown was not even mentioned in the report that covered the week when it took place.  And the Sheriff’s Office  declined to fulfill a public records request from The Lens related to the incident, citing an ongoing investigation.

But now, as part of the consent decree litigation, civil rights lawyers representing people incarcerated in the  jail are asking a federal judge to force Hutson to turn over the records related to the shakedown — including use of force reports, disciplinary write-ups related to the shakedown, contraband seized and any records of discussions or agreements between DOC and OPSO related to the consent decree and use of force policies.

The lawyers said Hutson’s office hadn’t provided those records despite repeated requests and that they’re entitled to them under consent decree provisions. 

OPSO did not respond to a request for comment on this story. DOC previously referred all inquiries on the incident to the Sheriff’s Office, and has yet to fulfill a public records request from The Lens for records related to the incident. 

The request for a court order to turn over the records is part of a broader push for information by the lawyers with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and comes amid an ongoing dispute between the Sheriff’s Office, consent decree parties and the federal court regarding OPSO’s transparency under Hutson’s leadership. 

Last month, after repeatedly expressing frustration with OPSO for failing to update the court on incidents in the jail, federal Magistrate Judge Michael North, who handles some consent decree matters, ordered the office to produce a “framework” for reporting incidents to the parties of the consent decree litigation so that they can be “more fully informed of OPSO’s determinations as to what happened, why it happened and what will be done to prevent such incidents in the future,” and thus “lend whatever guidance and assistance appropriate to address the causes of these incidents so that their numbers may be reduced in the future.” 

In response, earlier this month, OPSO said that they were providing daily emails to consent decree parties with all of the day’s incidents, providing “extensive access” to case management software, and that the parties and monitors could come to the jail “to do any in person inspections that they may wish to make.” 

But they also said that the “first step in providing a more comprehensive and timely accounting of incidents and ongoing investigations” to the other parties was for them to sign non-disclosure agreements. 

Both the United States Department of Justice and lawyers with MacArthur bristled at that suggestion. In subsequent filings, they noted that the consent decree litigation has been ongoing for over a decade without an NDA in place, and that it provides them ““unrestricted access” to records that are “reasonably necessary to address issues.” 

DOJ noted that federal law already requires them to keep records confidential.  “At no point has the Sheriff raised issues regarding the United States’ maintenance and use of information received from the Sheriff,” lawyers for the DOJ wrote. 

Lawyers for MacArthur said that they were  “under no obligation to enter into a non-disclosure agreement” and do “not intend to do so,” and that despite some improvements to records sharing from OPSO they still did not have the access required by the consent decree litigation. 

They noted that a number of specific requests for information were outstanding — including records related to two in-custody deaths that occurred in the jail over the summer, and those related to the DOC shakedown. 

In a separate filing, they asked the court to order OPSO to turn over all the requested documents within five days, or confirm that they do not exist. 

(Since the filing last week, OPSO has said that they’ve completed investigations into the in-custody deaths of 46-year-old Chad Neyland and 31-year-old Philip Soublet, Jr. They determined that Neyland died by suicide after he intentionally fell off a mezzanine in the jail while “while suffering the effects of detoxification from a heroin addiction.” Soublet was killed by another detainee in what was determined to be “justifiable self-defense” after Soublet attacked him with a deadly weapon, according to OPSO. Criminal charges against the man who killed Soublet were presented to a grand jury by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, but they declined to indict.

The attorneys also noted that there were significant discrepancies between the daily incident updates they were receiving and the weekly public reports put out by the sheriff’s office, which they said raised questions “as to the completeness of the public updates, in terms of the inclusivity of incidents (both type and number) as well as the robustness of disclosure as to the circumstances and severity of incidents.”

The shakedown by DOC officers came just weeks after the department assisted OPSO staff in raiding a housing pod that detainees had barricaded as part of a several day protest demanding improvements to jail conditions and protocols. 

That incident also raised questions about transparency coming from Hutson’s office. While OPSO initially reported that only “minor injuries” to detainees had been sustained as a result of the raid, several who spoke with the Lens said they had broken bones and were taken to the hospital after being shot with less lethal ammunition and kicked by DOC officers. 

One detainee said he suffered two collapsed lungs after being hit with a bean bag round. 

In their filing, lawyers for MacArthur said that after months of waiting, they were provided “some records” in early November related to the raid, and informed that others they had requested did not exist. 

A public records request from The Lens for information related to the raid — including use of force reports and surveillance and body camera footage —  was denied by OPSO, who cited an ongoing investigation. 

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...