Southern Poverty Law Center Files Federal Lawsuit Against Louisiana Sheriff to End Prisoner Abuse at Jail

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman today, charging the Louisiana sheriff’s indifference has created brutal and inhumane conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison where prisoners endure rampant violence, multiple sexual assaults and neglect.

The federal complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana describes a facility where violence and widespread contraband – including knives and drugs – are the norm. It also notes the facility is understaffed and that deputies are poorly trained and supervised – and often complicit in the abuses suffered by the prisoners.

The lawsuit describes abusive treatment endured by prisoners with mental illness, including a denial of mental health services that leaves the prisoners extremely vulnerable to physical attacks. People in need of mental health treatment or protection from suicide are held practically naked in overcrowded cells that reek of human waste.

“The Orleans Parish Prison is a public safety crisis,” said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for SPLC’s New Orleans Office and lead attorney on the case. “The majority of people who cycle through the jail eventually come home after enduring unspeakable abuses. This does not make New Orleans’ communities safer. This lawsuit presents a critical opportunity for New Orleans’ criminal justice stakeholders to re-direct funds that currently support the broken and horrifically abusive Orleans Parish Prison into proven alternatives to imprisonment.”

The SPLC lawsuit follows the U.S. government’s decision to remove all federal inmates from the jail, citing concerns about unlawful conditions of confinement. Almost three years ago, the Department of Justice conducted a comprehensive investigation of the facility and documented many of the same violations contained in the SPLC complaint.

The SPLC’s legal filings are accompanied by 19 affidavits from plaintiffs and other individuals who experienced the abusive conditions at the jail. These declarations include the following accounts of life inside the Orleans Parish Prison:

  • “This is serious. You can die in here. You can easily be killed any day. On some tiers, inmates have shackles. There are at least two to ten knives on every tier. If you report something though, you’ll probably get stabbed up. Animals can’t live back here, much less human beings.” – Declaration of Nicholas Miorana, plaintiff.

  • “I have been raped, beat up by guards, jumped by prisoners, had my stuff stolen, and denied access to mental health care. Nobody, especially those of us with a physical or mental disability are safe here.” – Declaration of Mark Walker, plaintiff

  • “Guards do nothing to prevent violence. In fact they often instigate it. When severe injury results from a fight, guards fail to respond with urgency. It can take hours for a deputy to come on the tier…I have had to apply pressure to knife wounds and called family members to call 911 since guards refuse to help.” – Declaration of Steven Dominick, plaintiff.

  • “A culture of violence exists across all facilities under Sheriff Gusman’s control due to guard’s failure to patrol the tiers, enforce safety measures and respond efficiently to emergencies…On the rare occasion guards are present for a physical altercation, they wait either for its conclusion or until prisoners draw blood before responding to the scene.” – Declaration of Jelpi Picou, incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison for one year (2010-11).

“Many of the individuals currently imprisoned in Orleans Parish Prison live with mental illness and they have cycled in and out of the jail for many years – not because they are dangerous criminals, but because the jail has consumed so many of our community’s resources,” Schwartzmann said. “There is no infrastructure for community mental health services. This is a dangerous cycle costing New Orleans taxpayers dearly.”