Jail monitors find continued problems at facility

“These are the same problems we had 10 years ago,” Africk said after hearing testimony from the mental health monitor Dr. Nicole Johnson. “So that’s very disheartening to hear that.” 

Monitors tasked with overseeing the New Orleans jail and tracking its compliance with the long-running federal consent decree said staff falsified suicide-watch documentation, rubber-stamped investigations to justify uses of force, and that the facility is dangerously understaffed.

Those impressions, given Monday during a hearing in front of U.S District Judge Lance Africk, were the first public comments by the team of monitors since Sheriff Susan Hutson took office just over a year ago.

During her campaign in 2021, Hutson promised to swiftly bring the jail up to constitutional standards. But based on the observations by the six monitors, it appears that goal may still be a ways off. The jail had regressed in key aspects of the consent decree, several monitors testified, including the provision of medical and mental health care, the detainee classification system, and investigations.

Among their specific concerns were questionable uses of force by deputies, a waitlist for mental health care, broken cell windows, and out-of-order kiosks where detainees can report grievances.

“These are the same problems we had 10 years ago,” Africk said after hearing testimony from the mental health monitor Dr. Nicole Johnson. “So that’s very disheartening to hear that.” 

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk of New Orleans Credit: U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana

Lead monitor Margo Frasier did note that Hutson has already been far more cooperative than her predecessor, Marlin Gusman, in working with the monitors on compliance. 

Gusman, who was for years sidelined from running day-to-day operations at the jail, frequently butted heads with the monitors, accusing them of having unrealistic expectations for the facility and of attempting to create a “jail utopia.”

But Frasier also recognized persistent serious issues at the facility under Hutson’s watch.  “A desire to cooperate by the sheriff herself isn’t enough, ” she said. “There have been some places that went off the rails.” 

After the hearing, Hutson blamed the majority of the jail’s problems on a persistent lack of staffing at both her agency and the jail’s private contracted healthcare provider, WellPath. 

“If you don’t have the deputies, it’s very difficult to do things,” Hutson said. 

Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson Credit: Susan Hutson for Sheriff campaign

Frasier, too, cited staffing as the primary issue. 

“The jail isn’t safe,” Frasier said. “I don’t think the sheriff would say it is safe. It’s not safe to work there. It’s not safe to be housed there. Staffing is a symptom and cause of the problem.”

But she also noted that “lack of staff can kind of become a crutch to excuse lack of effort.” 

Some of the concerns raised by the monitors echoed those made by civil rights attorneys representing detainees in the jail in court filings earlier this year, related to uses of force on detainees with mental illness. Despite a consent decree requirement, they said that mental health professionals weren’t first called to try to intervene prior to the altercations. 

Johnson, the mental health care monitor, testified that there was a general “lack of communication” between OPSO deputies and WellPath mental health staff. “Mental health is supposed to contacted prior to use of force — that is not being done on a consistent basis,” Johnson said. 

And Frasier said that the subsequent investigations into those uses of force appeared to be attempting to shield the deputies involved from any repercussions. 

“You read the first paragraph, and you’re like ‘I know where this is going,’” Frasier said. “This is a justification for behavior instead of an investigation into people’s conduct.”

Following the hearing, chief of corrections Dr. Astrid Birgden denied that the investigations were being rubber-stamped.

Johnson also said that there are detainees in the facility with serious mental illness who have been waiting, sometimes for as long as a month, for space in a dedicated wing of the jail that provides inpatient care. And until recently, she said, they had been getting no specialized care, despite having serious clinical mental health needs.

“There was nothing,” she said. 

Following her recommendation to WellPath, Johnson said that those individuals are now getting a daily check-in, “but it’s not a real clinical intervention — it’s a check off that they’re doing ok.”

Johnson also said that she was also concerned that WellPath staff tasked with doing check ins on detainees on suicide watch were falsifying time sheets to suggest they were making in-cell observations when in fact they hadn’t.

“They would write all the same numbers on all of [the documents],” Johnson said. 

Provision of medical care at the facility also raised serious concerns.

Dr. Susi Vassallo, the monitor in charge of medical care, said that WellPath was relying on unqualified staff to assess the medical needs of detainees. She said that in one instance she noticed that after making a complaint a patient in the jail had been given a laxative by a licensed vocational nurse, who Vasallo said was not qualified to make that determination. 

After reviewing the patient’s complaint, she determined it was not the proper course of action. 

When she went with a registered nurse to check on the patient, they determined he needed to be brought to the hospital, and when he went there a sepsis emergency was declared.

“The patient spent two days in the hospital,” she said.

A lawyer for WellPath acknowledged a shortage of registered nurses on staff at the jail, but said that it was an issue across the country, and that they were actively recruiting. 

During her campaign, Hutson was highly critical of the medical and mental health care being provided by Nashville, Tennessee-based WellPath, and said when she got into office she would seek out a new provider with ties to the community. 

But the contract is handled by the city, and shortly before Hutson took office a purchasing selection committee opted to renew it, after receiving only one additional bid from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. While the $19.2 million contract expires at the end of May, the city has the option to renew it for an additional four years.

Hutson said that she was taking steps to improve the facility’s compliance, including setting up a new Compliance and Accountability Bureau that will do regular audits, and training new recruits in the academy in the consent decree standards. 

“You can’t fix what’s been wrong for a long time in just 12 months,” Hutson said. “But we are putting the pieces in place.”

Frasier said that she anticipated the monitor’s full report outlining where the jail stands in terms of compliance will come out sometime in June.

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...