Conditions at the New Orleans jail regressed as Sheriff Marlin Gusman prepared to leave office and continued to slide last year as his successor, Sheriff Susan Hutson, stepped in, according to federal jail monitors, who this week released their first report about Hutson’s management of the Orleans Justice Center, the city’s jail.

Despite some improvements, the general downslide in jail conditions is continuing into its third year, monitors noted.

The monitors – appointed as part of the jail’s long-running federal consent decree, meant to bring the facility up to constitutional standards – identified serious issues with investigations; detainee classification, supervision, medical and mental healthcare; deputies’ use of excessive and unnecessary uses of force; and with weapons and other contraband in the jail.

The report, released Wednesday evening, assessed conditions at the facility in the final month of former Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s administration and the first five months of Hutson’s – between April 1, 2022, and September 30, 2022. 

Hutson’s campaign platform was rooted in bringing a new, progressive approach to running the jail. She assumed leadership of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office in May 2022, promising to prioritize the well-being and safety of people in custody and pledging to work with other actors in the criminal legal system to reduce the jail population. But the first year of her tenure has been marked by several serious violent incidents at the facility, multiple in-custody deaths, and disputes about transparency and internal investigations, with civil-rights attorneys representing incarcerated people. 

Though troubling, many of the report’s findings did not come as a surprise. At a court hearing in May, monitors described issues including dangerous levels of understaffing, rubber-stamped use-of-force investigations, and falsification of suicide-watch documentation by medical staff. 

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the consent judgment, listened from the bench and called the findings “disheartening.”

In the report, the monitors found that 22 of 174 consent-decree provisions backslid since their prior report. The report deemed that 80 provisions are in substantial compliance, 77 in partial compliance, and 17 in non-compliance.

Despite Hutson’s high hopes entering office, it appears that she was unable to quickly reverse a general downward trend in jail conditions that the monitors began identifying in the fall of 2020

For four years, the jail had made progress. As part of the consent judgment, an independent compliance director was appointed in 2016 to manage the facility’s day-to-day operations of the jail. Before the reins were returned to the sheriff’s office, the jail had achieved substantial compliance with 118 of the consent-decree provisions. None were in non-compliance, according to a July 2020 report.

That progress was made despite chronic understaffing, which has long been cited by the sheriff’s office as key reasons behind the jail’s ills. 

Then, in August 2020, Africk allowed Gusman to retake full control of the jail. Since then, the number of items in compliance has slid further with every new report. 

Same challenges but different attitude

There seems to have been a philosophical shift: while Gusman accused monitors of having unrealistic expectations for the jail, no such friction has been evident with Hutson.

In their recent report, monitors praised the Hutson for her cooperation, and commended her for establishing a Compliance and Accountability Bureau that will bird-dog consent-decree provisions by conducting audits and inspections – the monitors described the new bureau as “a monumental step in the right direction.”

“Sheriff Hutson has embraced the challenge of complying with the Consent Judgment and has established a good working relationship with the monitoring team,” the monitors wrote. “However, it continues to be concerning that the same deficiencies pointed out in previous reports by the Monitors continue to exist and are not resolved. Serious incidents and harm to inmates continue to occur.” 

Yet somehow the jail seems stuck in a groove that Hutson could not quickly undo, despite high hopes. As Hutson took office, she promised to have “all the systems in place” to comply with the consent judgment by the time she marked a year in office, in May 2023.

As the report notes, many of the problems that existed under Gusman either persisted under Hutson or have been exacerbated. 

Drugs are frequently brought into the facility due to “a significant issue of staff smuggling in contraband and the failure to detect narcotics being brought in by inmates being arrested.” Detainees also frequently strip materials from the jail’s interior to create weapons. 

“As one source of contraband (such as the light supports in the utility closets and the cabinets at the front of the day room) is identified and eliminated, the inmates then discover a new source of material from which to fashion weapons,” the report reads. “For example, inmates have begun to pry off the metal sheeting around the sinks in the janitor closets and used the brooms the facility provided as weapons.” 

Within one week in August, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that four detainees were stabbed in the facility in four separate incidents. 

Observative staff could nearly eliminate the shanks often used in such incidents, monitors wrote. “In reality, few, if any, of the sources of contraband would be available to the inmates if the staff followed policies regarding supervision and limiting access to materials.” 

Short staffing, lack of healthcare resources

Though the jail’s population suffers from high numbers of chronic medical and mental issues, providing care to them continues to be an issue .The medical monitor found that navigating the electronic medical records system for people in the jail is “like an Easter Egg hunt.” 

“Providers hunt for information and spend a lot of time doing so,” she wrote. “At the end of the hunt, not all the eggs are found. But these eggs are records, treatments, and results of testing that when left undiscovered, can adversely affect the patient’s health.”

While monitors praised the care in the specialized mental-health units in the jail, some of the units cannot be used because of understaffing. And many people with acute mental illness don’t receive necessary care, because they are housed in other, “general population” tiers. 

The report described a continued “lack of resources, a dedicated psychiatrist and mental health professional, for the general population.”

Medical and mental health care at the facility are handled by Wellpath, a controversial private provider that has held a contract with the city for nearly a decade. Last month, the New Orleans City Council approved a $21 million extension of their contract for another year, despite serious reservations regarding their performance.

Hutson herself has frequently pointed to lack of staffing as the underlying cause of many of the jail’s problems, as Gusman did when he oversaw the jail. Monitors, while sympathetic, argued that OPSO needs to do more to address the issue.

“More often than not, there are housing units and control rooms with no assigned staffing,” monitors wrote. “Staff are often tasked with manning two housing units and the control room despite the Consent Judgment requiring one deputy/recruit on each unit for direct supervision. Further, almost daily, assigned staff leave housing units and control pods unattended for meal breaks and other duties.”

Monitors recommended stepping up hiring and retention efforts and suggested that Hutson’s office focus on redeploying staff to areas “where the need is most critical” and potentially mandate overtime “to ensure the mandatory posts are covered on a consistent basis.”

“Too often the failure to follow policy is blamed on the lack of staff or training,” the monitors wrote. “Neither is an acceptable excuse.”

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...