NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Precious time was lost when an inmate hanged himself in the shower at the New Orleans jail because a guard couldn't open a door to the shower from the outside, an expert testified Thursday — the second day of a hearing on whether management at the troubled lockup should be taken away from the local sheriff.
Inmate Cleveland Tumblin died at a hospital days after being found nearly lifeless in a shower at the jail in March. Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office has been criticized because the door to the shower area latched from the inside, delaying access to the inmate.
Mental health expert Raymond Patterson testified Thursday that his review of a report on the suicide indicated a guard could see Tumblin's feet by looking under the shower door, but could not open the door from the outside. A nurse later crawled under the door to reach Tumblin, who still had a pulse, Patterson said. He said faster medical attention might have improved Tumblin's chance of survival.
Gusman attorney James Williams asked Patterson whether any written prison standard recommends against shower doors that latch from the inside.
"It's common sense," Patterson said. "I don't know if anyone has ever written that down. It is such a fundamental practice."
Williams insisted a mechanism on the shower door allowed it to be opened from outside.
But Patterson responded: "It wasn't done, and a man died."
Patterson conceded, under Williams' questioning, that mental health treatment at the jail has improved, but said crisis management at the jail is "abysmal."
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is presiding over the hearing on a motion by the U.S. Justice Department and inmate lawyers to have the jail placed in receivership — a drastic action that would eliminate the chief duty of the elected local sheriff. Gusman has likened the move to a "coup," arguing that his progress in complying with 2013 court-approved reform plan is being ignored.
Backers of receivership were expected to continue presenting evidence Friday. It wasn't clear when Gusman's team would begin presenting evidence. The hearing was expected to continue into next week.
The hearing opened Wednesday with a court-appointed monitor saying jail staff members lack expertise and knowledge and "have no clue." Gusman responded with a statement late Wednesday calling monitor Susan McCampbell's remarks "insulting, derogatory and unfounded." As he has done in the past, he blamed a lack of funding from the city for many of the jail's problems.
Tumblin died roughly six months after inmates were moved from old, decaying jail facilities into a new building. Gusman had touted the new building as a factor in improving conditions. But monitors say violence endangering inmates and staffers continues at the new facility.
The transition from old buildings to the new one didn't go smoothly, according to one monitor.
Corrections expert Darnley Hodge testified Thursday about conditions soon after inmates moved to a new facility last September. Hodge said he observed stopped up toilets, lack of medication for inmates and an area where all the inmates were nude. It was unclear why their clothes were apparently unavailable.
"I saw one inmate use his bare hands as toilet tissue," Hodges said. He also said the new jail's problems are attributable to a lack of planning that should have begun before construction began.
Hodges said some of the early problems were corrected quickly. However, another jail monitor described lingering problems with condensation and rust in shower areas.