NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans jail deputy picked up an inmate by his throat and body-slammed him to the ground in a recent incident, an expert testified Monday, saying the jail continues to have problems with staff using unnecessary and sometimes excessive force with inmates.
Margo Frasier spoke at a hearing to decide whether a judge should give control of the jail to a third party, a controversial move that would strip the elected sheriff of his chief responsibility.
Frasier painted a harsh picture of the jail under Sheriff Marlin Gusman. But in the first testimony for Gusman's side, a top jail official, Carmen DeSadier, described a facility making necessary improvements while it dealt with gross "understaffing."
Gusman agreed to reforms at the jail in a consent decree approved by a judge in 2013. But his critics say he has been too slow to comply with the decree's requirements. And they say dangerous violence has continued even after a move to new facilities last September.
Gusman has likened the attempt to strip him of the jail as a coup and says that he's been making progress.
When talking about use of force problems, Frasier described one incident captured on video where an inmate who was distributing food trays gets to one cell and then drops a tray as the inmate inside reached for it. An altercation ensued and one of the inmates started to get aggressive, Frasier said.
"The deputy literally picks the inmate up by his throat," she said, adding the deputy then body slammed him to the ground and punched the inmate several times.
That deputy was later dismissed.
Frasier described deputies taking extensive breaks without anyone overseeing their units, or times when no one was scheduled to staff a certain area. She said there were too many inmate fights occurring and too many use-of-force incidents by staff, yet the jail's use-of-force review board had only met once in 2015.
In other testimony, Frasier described the sexual assault of an inmate by another inmate with a history of sexual assaults. Both the inmates were on suicide watch and should have been watched closely, Frasier said. Instead the jail officials didn't know about the incident until the assaulted inmate reported it to his mother, she said.
"Someone who is an extremely vulnerable first time offender should never have been in the cell with this guy," she said.
Most of the day was taken up by the testimony of Frasier and by another member of the monitoring team.
But late in the afternoon DeSadier, who is the jail's corrections chief, took the stand. In discussing improvements the jail has made, DeSadier said hiring and retaining good staff has been a challenge.
"We are grossly understaffed," she said. "We aren't able to keep them."
DeSadier said part of the problem is that they don't pay a lot. She also said many of the staff have not embraced the "direct supervision philosophy" in place at the new jail. In a "direct supervision" jail, guards are expected to spend more time in the units, interacting with inmates and keeping a watchful eye from up close as opposed to remaining outside in an observation room or secure location.
The sheriff's supporters often say they need more money from the city for competitive salaries.
DeSadier pointed to other areas of improvement such as a reduction in contraband and a competition in which inmates with the cleanest unit get a special meal that she said improved cleanliness.
But the judge repeatedly asked DeSadier whether she thought the facility was "safe and secure," pointing to the repeated reports of inmate violence and other issues. After initially saying that she thought the facility was, DeSadier later noted: "We certainly have our challenges and could we be better, absolutely."
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