Corrections expert testifies about ‘total dysfunction’
New Orleans — A 2009 video shot in the now-closed House of Detention was the highlight as a hearing on the proposed federal consent decree with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office entered its second day on Tuesday.
Among a raft of images of disorder and depravity, the video, as edited by Fox8 TV, a Lens partner, features an inmate in a locked prison dorm showing off a loaded, long-barreled handgun.
The video was pulled from a safe at the parish prison complex at the demand of attorneys representing the city of New Orleans.
The city is refusing to give Sheriff Marlin Gusman what Mayor Mitch Landrieu has called a “blank check” to cover the cost of the federally mandated reforms.
The video was shown Tuesday morning to a room of lawyers at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to determine whether the city will be able to get out from under a decree that it says could cost taxpayers $110 million over five years.
The city has been trying this week to convince Africk that the conditions at the jail are Sheriff Marlin’s Gusman’s responsibility and financial burden.
To end a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of inmates by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gusman agreed late last year to implement a consent decree that the Department of Justice has been urging since 2011.
Gusman agreed to go along with the consent decree while denying that conditions in the jails under his control are, as federal officials claim, unconstitutionally brutal and deficient.
The video was offered in support of the city’s claim that Gusman has mismanaged the jail.
It begins with a familiar scene: a man enjoying the sights and sounds of Bourbon Street.
Moments later, the video cuts to a close-up of that same man, now inside the House of Detention and preparing to inject heroin into his arm.
Heroin use is just the beginning. Other drugs are injected, snorted or smoked as inmates laugh, grin and carry on merrily, seemingly oblivious to possible recrimination by guards.
Crack cocaine is smoked, lines of heroin are snorted off the cover of word-puzzle books available in the prison commissary. Inmates show off pills, pull Budweiser “tall-boys” from an in-cell cooler and slug back the contraband beer. There’s a dice game going on, and an inmate flashes a money roll.
Everything’s for sale at the prison, one inmate is heard to say: meth, pills, crack, heroin.
The inmates also point out the deplorable conditions in which they live, deficiencies perhaps best exemplified when an inmate shows off glue traps the size of shoeboxes, so big are the rats that roam the facility.
After the video presentation in court, the Department of Justice called its first witness, Manuel Romero, a corrections expert.
Romero studied general conditions of confinement at the jail for a report he filed on behalf of the Justice Department in April to back up the federal government’s contention that Gusman’s jail violates civil rights guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Through on-site visits and interviews with inmates and staff, Romero determined conditions at the prison complex to be unaccceptable — and more violent than at any of the many prisons he has studied.
In his 30 years in the field, he had never seen anything that came close to the “level of boldness” exhibited by the prisoners in the video, Romero said.
“It’s obvious that there is not a good program for the control of contraband,” he said, adding that the security situation at the jail is an exercise in “total dysfunction.”
Gusman issued a statement in the early afternoon saying that he closed the House of Detention a year ago, and that the depravity depicted in the video was part of the reason why.
He takes the stand Wednesday.
In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Mitch Landrieu echoed what some had said in court: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
This story was reported by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.