SPLC reaches agreement to address prisoner abuse, neglect at Orleans Parish Prison

From: Southern Poverty Law Center
Dec. 11th 2012

The SPLC has reached an agreement with officials in Orleans Parish, La., to address the brutal and inhumane conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison, where prisoners have endured rampant violence, sexual assaults and neglect.

The federal consent decree outlines steps that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will take to ensure prisoner safety and adequate staffing of the facility. If approved by the court, an independent monitor will oversee the agreement to ensure compliance. The agreement, the result of an SPLC lawsuit filed in April, also would apply to any new facility that is built to replace the jail.

“We are hopeful the judge will agree that this settlement is in the best interest of all parties involved,” said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the SPLC’s New Orleans office and lead attorney on the case. “We also applaud Sheriff Gusman and his office for taking the important first step of acknowledging the problems within the jail. While implementation will be difficult, we are committed to improving conditions, and will work with him to do so. We also need the city to work with us and provide the funding to truly fix this jail.”

SPLC clients Byron Morgan and Nicholas Miorana, both prisoners in the Orleans Parish Prison, said they were pleased an agreement has been reached. “I am excited the sheriff has agreed to take a hard look, and fix this jail,” Morgan said. “I hope Mayor Mitch Landrieu will help make the changes as well.”

Miorana added, “Today, I understand what right and wrong stand for. With help from the Justice Department and SPLC, our cries will finally be heard.”
The decree includes the following provisions:

  • Review and monitoring of prison operations by a professional corrections administrator.
  • Comprehensive policies governing the use of force and restraints on prisoners.
  • Documenting and tracking complaints of prison staff using excessive force.
  • A staffing plan that provides enough officers to ensure prisoner safety.
  • A ban on placing teenagers in units where they may have contact with an adult prisoner.
  • Guidelines for providing medical and mental health care for prisoners.

The SPLC lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, described a facility where widespread violence and contraband – including knives – are the norm. It also noted that the jail is understaffed and that deputies are not only poorly trained and supervised, but are often complicit in the abuses suffered by the prisoners.

The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case in September, joining the effort to address the conditions. Three years ago, a comprehensive investigation by the department documented many of the same violations contained in the SPLC lawsuit.

Once the agreement is approved by the court, it will go into effect immediately. However, certain provisions cannot be implemented until the city and the sheriff’s office resolve how to provide adequate funding for the jail. If the city and the sheriff cannot resolve the funding dispute, the funding issue will go to trial on April 4, 2013, before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.

“April 4 is a long time for the men, women and children in Orleans Parish Prison to wait,” said Schwartzmann. “With Sheriff Gusman committed to reform, we urge Mayor Landrieu to provide immediate emergency funding to support the necessary changes. Every day we wait, the lives of thousands of New Orleanians remain at risk.”

Man dies of apparent suicide while in custody of Orleans Parish sheriff

A man died in the custody of the Orleans Parish sheriff Friday night, about two hours after he arrived at an intake facility on a charge of heroin possession.

In a news release, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman called the death of Michael Hitzman, 31, an apparent suicide.

Hitzman is the fourth inmate to die this year while in the custody of the sheriff’s office.

Hitzman arrived at the sheriff’s Intake and Processing Center at about 5 p.m. Friday. He was screened by medical staff, who observed wounds on his forearms consistent with intravenous drug use, the news release said.

According to the release, a physician prescribed an antibiotic and scheduled a follow-up appointment.

Hitzman initially appeared calm but subsequently attempted to leave through the emergency doors and began exhibiting “belligerent, uncooperative” behavior, according to the sheriff’s office.

For his own safety and the safety of others, Hitzman was placed into an individual holding cell at around 6 p.m., the news release said.

At 7:14 p.m., a deputy found that Hitzman had apparently attached his T-shirt to the cell door and strangled himself. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

“At no time during the booking and screening process for this arrest, or any prior arrests, or during any of his prior incarcerations, did Hitzman express or exhibit any suicidal tendencies,” said an e-mail sent by sheriff’s office spokeswoman Mary Martin.

An autopsy is being conducted by the Orleans Parish coroner’s office.

Last month, two Orleans Parish Prison inmates died about an hour apart, though the deaths were unrelated.

About midday on March 30, Shedrick Godfrey, 48, died of an apparent heart attack while working a community service detail with other inmates. About an hour later Chris Blevins, 22, died from a stab wound to the chest suffered during a lunchtime fight with another inmate.

Richard Scearce, 60, who was arrested after a daylong standoff with New Orleans police last fall, died of cardiac arrest Jan. 19 while in custody of the sheriff’s office. Scearce died at the Interim LSU Public Hospital, where he had been transferred for treatment of a urinary tract infection, Gusman’s office said.

Scearce had barricaded himself inside his Uptown apartment Oct. 30 after receiving an eviction notice. He fired an assault rifle several times and set fire to his home, police said.

In December, Gusman and several of his staff members were sued by the father of a New Orleans woman who died in restraints in the jail’s psychiatric unit.

Cayne Miceli, 43, had a history of asthma, panic attacks and depression but was denied adequate medical care after she arrived at the jail in January 2009, the suit alleges. Miceli was arrested after allegedly biting a police officer who tried to remove her from Tulane Medical Center, where she had been treated for an asthma attack.

A U.S. Department of Justice report last year raised numerous concerns about the jail’s medical services.

The report — which Gusman said was outdated and ignored post-Katrina difficulties — mostly singled out the jail’s mental health care procedures. It criticized the jail’s use of restraints on a tier reserved for mentally ill patients and the facility’s procedures for preventing suicide and dispensing medication to inmates.

The report did not criticize screenings for other medical problems at the intake and processing center, and it concluded that other aspects of the jail’s medical care met constitutional mandates.