(La'Shance Perry/The Lens) Credit: La'Shance Perry / Government & Politics - The Lens

With the city’s jail nearing its maximum population, Sheriff Susan Hutson has transferred several pre-trial detainees from the Orleans Justice Center to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a maximum-security prison.

The sheriff initiated the transfer “to decrease the population as well as address some facility violence concerns” at the jail, said Casey McGee, a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, who confirmed on Thursday that six New Orleans detainees were transferred to Angola on September 20. 

The sheriff selected those to be transferred to Angola based on “institutional behavior and their length of time in OJC.”

The transfers were not announced publicly or noted online for anyone who searched the jail’s population. Instead, a group of parents whose adult children were murdered together last year heard about the move through Angola. A family member serving time in the penitentiary had called one parent to say he’d happened to hear prison officials call the name of the alleged killer. 

“He’s here,”  she was told. “I heard them call his name — Tyrone Steele.”

Steele is charged with murdering five people, including Amya Cornin —Renata Loya’s daughter.

When Loya heard about it, through the other parents, she was shocked to hear that Steele had been moved to Angola, because he hasn’t been tried for the murders yet.

She went to the jail’s inmate search bar and tapped in the name Tyrone Steele. The response: “No matching names on file.” 

Her heart raced, she said. Even when a call to Angola confirmed that Steele was there, she felt confused, she said, and concerned that he may not make it back for his court date next month.

“Why would you send someone three hours away when he has to be at court on November 8th?” she asked.

Casey, the sheriff’s spokesperson, said that anyone transferred will be driven back to New Orleans for their court dates. No time frame has been set for transferring them back to the jail, she said.

Last month’s move came as the Orleans Justice Center complex neared 1,250, the legal population cap set by the New Orleans City Council in 2019. On Thursday, according to McGee, there were 1,207 people in OPSO custody — including those who were transferred to Angola, and an another ten detainees who are being held in other locations: Jefferson Parish, Ascension, St. Tammany, and a federal facility.

McGee said that among those ten, some were facing charges in the jurisdictions where they are now being held, but “a few are being held for OPSO for security reasons.” 

Rising population makes deputies’ work more difficult

The rising population has exacerbated the chronic violence, chaos, and understaffing at the facility, according to the sheriff’s office. According to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, several OPSO supervisors walked off the job days before the detainees were transferred, in response to a series of incidents in the jail, including several fires being set in the facility. Multiple detainees were subsequently charged with arson. 

But the decision to transfer detainees from the jail to a maximum security prison hours away raised concerns not only among victims, but also among advocates and defense lawyers, who worried that meetings with their clients were now impossible – and that they may not be driven back for court dates.

McGee said that the office has “not had any concerns from attorney’s regarding access to their clients.” But Alexis Chernow, Chief of Trials with the Orleans Public Defenders, said that her office hadn’t been notified of the transfers.

On Thursday, after she heard about it from the Lens, Chernow was working to determine if any of OPD’s clients were among the six that were transferred.

“We don’t get notified, the families don’t get notified,” said Chernow, who saw the transfers as a problem for lawyers who needed to communicate privately with defendants and prepare for court dates. Not only is the local jail within walking distance of the OPD office – and defenders have forged other ties with the jail. “While our clients can make phone calls to us from the jail that are free, they can’t do that from Angola.”

Pre-trial detainees, still legally considered innocent, held in prison

It’s not the first time the Sheriff’s Office has sent pretrial detainees to state prisons and other facilities. In 2016, Sheriff Marlin Gusman sent hundreds of people in his custody to jails in northern Louisiana prior to the opening of the current jail, saying he didn’t have space to house them. 

During that time, defendants were unable to communicate privately and adequately with public defenders, Chernow said. Also, despite assurances, defendants weren’t always transported for their court dates, she said.

A few years earlier, in 2014, Gusman had begun sending detainees with acute mental illness to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, because U.S. District Judge Lance Africk had found that detainees with acute mental illness could no longer be held in the woefully designed Templeman 5 building of the old jail. All of those inmates were transferred back to the jail in 2019. 

Even if the detainees technically remain in Orleans Parish custody, Chernow believes that placing pre-trial defendants into a state prison is “really problematic on a human-being level.”

“This is a state penitentiary and these are people who have not been convicted of anything yet,” she said. “If you get arrested for something, you can all of a sudden get taken to a state penitentiary before anyone has determined that you did anything wrong?” 

She also said she also had concerns about what conditions the detainees were being held in.

McGee said that the detainees are being held in a separate area of Angola from people serving prison sentences, though she had no specifics about where on Angola’s sprawling prison grounds the transferred inmates were held. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not immediately respond to questions from The Lens.

Despite a high-profile shortage of deputies, the sheriff also will now be responsible for transportation from Angola. OPSO deputies will drive back and forth from Angola to transport detainees for court dates, McGee said. 

From a bigger picture, Chernow said, the transfers themselves undermine the very reason that the City Council set a population cap – which was to ensure that the city would not lock up too many people. 

To get to a place where a jail cap was even possible took work from many New Orleanians and their leaders in the City and the Council. Even in 2009, as the new jail’s size was being debated, the jail population stood at 3,473. The numbers were brought down by innovations such as pre-trial risk assessments and ordinances that allowed police to write citations instead of making arrests for certain minor crimes.

Only 57% of people booked into the jail last week were charged with felonies, according to data from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, which analyzes jail size each week and issues a report. Of the remaining 43%, 25% were held on state misdemeanors, 12% on warrants and detainers, and 7% municipal and traffic offenses. Studies have shown that low- and moderate-risk people often are kept in jail merely because they cannot afford to pay their set bond.

Rather than moving detainees, she said, agencies should be finding ways to release people who are being locked up for lower-level offenses only because they couldn’t make bond.

“We decided as a city we wanted fewer people locked up,” said Chernow, who said that the transfers were “a band-aid” solution for a jail population that’s gone beyond what city leaders had envisioned, because of root causes that haven’t been fully explained. “We really need to try to figure out what the source is,” she said.