Expert: Suicide still a risk at New Orleans jail

AP News
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Posted: May 25, 2016 5:59 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Staffers at the New Orleans jail that opened last September "just have no clue" about how to run it, a court-appointed jail monitor said during a Wednesday federal court hearing aimed at determining whether a parish sheriff should continue to operate the lockup.

Lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department, inmate advocates and the city of New Orleans want the jail placed in federal receivership, with an independent third party appointed to operate it. They argue that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, an elected official, should be stripped of his chief duty and held in contempt for failing to make progress implementing reforms he agreed to in a court settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk in 2013.

The hearing in Africk's court is expected to last through Friday. The judge is not expected to rule immediately.

The last witness Wednesday was Raymond Patterson, a mental health expert. He discussed the suicide in March of inmate Cleveland Tumblin and said the risks of inmate suicide are still present.

Tumblin hanged himself in a jail shower in March. Patterson said shower doors that locked from the inside have since been removed. But Patterson testified that brackets and clothing hooks that inmates could use to hang themselves remain. And, he said, methods of evaluating and observing potentially suicidal inmates still need work.

Inmates moved from the old, decaying Orleans Parish Prison into the modern Orleans Justice Center amid much fanfare eight months ago. Gusman had touted the move as a major step toward ending the security problems, suicide attempts and violence that had plagued the jail for decades. But McCampbell, who opened the day's testimony, said adequate policies and procedures were not in place when the move took place.

"They basically took a culture (from the prison) and moved it into this new facility," she said.

McCampbell, appointed to oversee compliance with the 2013 agreement, said the jail is inadequately staffed and provides inadequate training for employees. She said many violent incidents are not properly reported, and even the level of violence that does get reported is unacceptable.

The new jail is designed for direct observation and interaction with inmates but, McCampbell said, she has observed times when units containing inmates were not staffed.

McCampbell described Gusman as passionate in his will to improve the jail. And she said there are many dedicated, intelligent people at the Sheriff's Office who want to make things better.

"They just have no clue," McCampbell said. In March, McCampbell had said inmates and jail staff remained in danger because of violence at the jail. An inmate suicide in a shower underscored the jail's problems.

Gusman attorney James Williams pointed to the sheriff's frequent calls for more money from the city and McCampbell's own reports on low salaries as evidence of the hurdles Gusman faces. Williams also cited McCampbell's writings in saying that the opening of a new jail requires adjustments for staffers. Williams also said there has been progress toward changing the jail's overall culture, including the hiring of a corrections chief answerable only to the sheriff.

Gusman's lawyers liken the receivership motion to an illegal coup attempt that would thwart the will of voters who elected him. Gusman is a former City Council member who was first elected sheriff in 2004 to fill an unexpired term. He has been elected three times since, most recently in 2014. Lawsuits over jail conditions go back decades and predate Gusman. But jail critics say poor conditions continued under his leadership.

In previous statements contained in court papers, they say he began reform efforts soon after taking office but was dealt a major setback in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged already decaying buildings. The lawyers also have argued that Gusman has had too little time since 2013 to fully comply with the consent decree and too little money from the city.

City officials have increased funding for the jail, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has made clear it would rather deal with a receiver than Gusman.