04/11/2012

New Orleans Sheriff Takes a Positive Step, But Real Reform Needed

The Southern Poverty Law Center commends Sheriff Marlon Gusman’s decision to close the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) House of Detention, but the Sheriff’s Department needs to make additional reforms to better protect the community and save taxpayer dollars.

Sheriff Gusman closed the Orleans Parish Prison House of Detention yesterday following the removal of federal prisoners from his custody by the U.S. Marshals Service about three weeks ago, an investigative tour of OPP by the Department of Justice last week, SPLC’s class action lawsuit also filed last week, and the scathing report on OPP issued earlier this week by the federal Review Panel on Prison Rape.

The Sheriff should be commended for finally recognizing the intolerable and inhumane conditions at OPP. Tragically, this incremental reform occurred only after the abusive conditions at OPP destroyed countless lives.

Resolving the crisis at OPP will require more than moving people from one jail to another. It’s time to recognize that New Orleans and the Sheriff’s Department invest far too many resources in imprisonment — at the expense of alternatives that could better protect our communities and save taxpayer dollars.

The federal complaint we filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana describes a facility where violence and widespread contraband are the norm, and details the abusive treatment endured by prisoners with mental illness, including denial of mental health services that leave the prisoners extremely vulnerable to physical attacks. It also noted the facility is understaffed and that deputies are poorly trained and supervised — and often complicit in the abuses suffered by the prisoners.

The closure of the House of Detention represents an important first step on the way to real reform in the Orleans Parish Prison.

Katie Schwartzmann is the managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Louisiana.