New Orleans Parish Prison: Possibly the Worst Prison in America

Alright, like me, you might want to make a mental note. I don’t know whether you live in Louisiana or plan to visit anytime soon. But, it’s probably a good idea to avoid being incarcerated in New Orleans Parish Prison, which is quite possibly the worst prison in America. Not that prison is supposed to be a fun place, folks. But as prisons go — not that I have first hand knowledge or anything — this prison might not be the place to be. Not that any prison is the place to be; but trust me, according to this lawsuit and evidence revealed in court yesterday, it really isn’t. That is unless you feel at home with being assaulted, or running the chance of losing your life while locked away and forgotten.

This from AlterNet:

It would appear to be an open and shut case. Videos of conditions in the New Orleans Parish Prison shown in federal court yesterday showed deplorable, dangerous and out-of-control conditions, including inmates shooting up, drinking beer, and one shooting and waving a loaded gun. Other videos have shown inmates wandering around Bourbon Street, telling beat cops that they are supposed to be in jail, and sexual misconduct in plain views of deputies. Manuel David Romero testified that one out of every three or four inmates has been assaulted in the prison—32 have been stabbed, and 698 have been otherwise, which is the highest number he has ever seen in his long career in corrections. “I have not seen numbers this large,” Romero told the Times Picayune. “What it tells you is, it’s basically a total lack of security program.”

With no classification system to separate violent from non-violent offenders, and deputies who appear to freely allow contraband, sexual assault, gambling and prisoners to come and go, it’s no wonder the inmates feel unsafe. Overcrowded, trash-strewn cells are par for the course.

To address the problem, the U.S. Department of Justice joined with the Southern Poverty Law Center to bring a class action suit against New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Last December, the sheriff, law center and federal officials said they had reached an agreement to clean up conitions. At stake now is whether that agreement will rise to the level of becoming a consent decree, which is legally binding.

The City of New Orleans is fighting the decree on the grounds that it would be ruinous to the city’s budget, although Mayor Mitch Landrieu agrees that the videos are “outrageous.” He would rather see the federal judge put the jails into receivership.

Meanwhile, some of the inmates have been seen wandering the streets, and a few more have died in prison. (source)

But seriously, I know New Orleans happens to be a rough city and was at one time the murder capital of the United States. That said, is it me, or is it pretty bad when prisoners have to complain about not being safe in prison? As bad as it sounds in there, you’d think the streets are a lot safer, yes?

This last year from Mother Jones:

As hellholes go, there are few worse places in America than the Orleans Parish Prison.

New Orleans’ teeming city jail first hit the radar of most Americans following Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of inmates were abandoned for days in flooded cells without food, water, ventilation, or electricity—some of them “standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests,” according to the ACLU. But OPP’s problems did not begin with Katrina, nor end in the storm’s wake, when prisoners were shipped back to the jail’s surviving buildings.

This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of OPP’s inmates. The 38-page complaint—which names as defendants Sheriff Marlin Gusman, along with the jail’s wardens and medical directors—describes a facility where prisoners “are at imminent risk of serious harm.” About 44 percent of the inmates are there awaiting trial, and haven’t been convicted of the crimes they were charged with. But pretrial detention at OPP, the suit contends, is in itself a brutal punishment that can expose people to physical and sexual abuse, and even death.

new-orleans-parish-prison“Rapes, sexual assaults, and beatings are commonplace,” the lawsuit states. “Violence regularly occurs at the hands of sheriffs’ deputies, as well as other prisoners…People living with serious mental illnesses languish without treatment, left vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. These conditions have created a public safety crisis that affects the entire city.”

“It’s just complete lawlessness in there,” Katie Schwartzmann, the SPLC attorney representing the prisoners, told us in an interview. “The place is full of knives. There are tons of assaults, beatings.”

[…] Stints at OPP are particularly horrendous for inmates with mental illness, whom the SPLC believes make up as much as two-thirds of the jail’s population—their condition often goes undetected. “There’s not even a classification system,” says Schwartzmann, “so people who have disabilities that make them vulnerable have a really hard time of it.”

When inmates are booked into OPP, the lawsuit notes, prison officials suspend their medications for 30 days and sometimes longer: “Unsurprisingly, this practice causes some individuals to experience suicidal ideation.” When this happens, “suicidal prisoners with mental health needs are transferred to a direct observation cell, in which they are held almost naked for days.”

Schwartzmann cites one inmate, William Goetzee, who tried to snatch a security officer’s gun outside a courthouse, professing that he wanted to kill himself. “They bring him to OPP,” she says. “He attempted to hang himself. They cut him down and two days later he killed himself by eating toilet paper. He ate enough toilet paper that he asphyxiated. Tell me if that’s not deliberate indifference!”

Inmates deemed mentally ill but not suicidal “are transferred to the psychiatric tiers—where they are locked down in their cells for 23 hours a day and deprived of mental health interventions,” notes the complaint. “People living there are not allowed to go outside or visit with their families. Overhead lights are on 24 hours per day, and the tier contains actively psychotic people living on the ground in overcrowded cells. Deputies do not walk the tiers. Rape is rampant.”

Prisoners seeking mental health services, the suit continues, “are discouraged from seeking necessary care” not only by the strict lockdown but also because they are charged a copayment for submitting the request.

Question: with 2.5 million currently incarcerated in America, is this surprising to anyone?