St. Tammany sheriff, Justice Department sign agreement to address issues at jail

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain Jr.
St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain Jr.

About two years after the federal government began investigating the St. Tammany Parish Jail and its handling of mentally ill prisoners — including the practice of confining suicidal inmates to claustrophobia-inducing cells — Department of Justice has entered into a comprehensive agreement with local officials to correct conditions and ensure that improvements at the jail are maintained.

An independent auditor will review St. Tammany’s compliance with the agreement, which requires the improved screening of prisoners, adequate and timely mental health treatment — including therapy — and improved suicide prevention, including enhanced staff training.

St. Tammany Parish Jack Strain, who signed the memorandum of agreement Thursday, said it follows two years of scrutiny by the justice department “into every crack and corner’’ of the jail, an investigation he said failed to find a single civil-rights violation.

But the memorandum of agreement cites a findings letter sent by DOJ on July 12, 2012, that concluded “certain conditions at the jail violated the constitutional rights of individuals confined at the jail. Specifically, DOJ found that jail officials were “deliberately indifferent to prisoners’ serious mental health needs, including suicide prevention and medication management.’’

The sheriff and parish government officials responded with a letter denying any constitutional violation, the memorandum says. The purpose of the agreement, according to the memorandum, is to address the conclusions noted in the July 12 findings letter.

The document signed by federal officials, Strain and St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister is not the same as a consent decree, which is enforced by a court. Strain said Thursday that a consent decree was the DOJ’s original intention when it first came to the jail in 2011.

“The citizens of St. Tammany Parish and our deputies can and should be very proud of the fact that our jail is run in such a professional manner that the Department of Justice retreated from their initial demand for a consent decree — an extremely rare occurrence,” Strain said in a prepared statement.

The DOJ’s initial visit followed complaints by the American Civil Liberties Union concerning the use of so-called squirrel cages — cells that were 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 7 feet tall — to hold prisoners who expressed suicidal intentions. The jail has since stopped using the cages.

Strain said that the agency changed its mind about going to court because there were no findings of violations and his office was able to show inspectors that they were already doing the things the agency wanted — before being asked to do so.

The memorandum says that the Sheriff’s Office and parish government cooperated through the course of the investigation and “demonstrated a willingness to voluntarily undertake measures to improve conditions at the jail.’’ Those actions included improved medication administration, building a special housing unit to manage and monitor prisoners in mental crisis and discontinuing the use of squirrel cages for any purpose.

In a prepared statement, Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general, civil rights division, said that she commended Strain, Brister and others “for their willingness to work aggressively to address the problems identified during the course of our investigation. Based on the productive relationship we have established to date, we expect to continue to work cooperatively with St. Tammany to improve conditions of confinement at this facility,” she said.

Strains’s office said Thursday that the DOJ’s proposed consent decree contained nearly 100 operational recommendations; however all but two of them were already in place at the jail.

Those two sought to require sheriff’s deputies to monitor inmates after their release from jail to ensure they continue to take their prescribed medications and to routinely visit inmates after their release to ensure that their coping skills are adequate to overcome personal problems, the Sheriff’s Office said.

“After it was explained to representatives from DOJ that the Sheriff’s office is not the appropriate agency to provide these services after an inmate is no longer in our custody, these two suggestions were deemed unnecessary by the Department of Justice,’’ the news release said.

The Sheriff’s Office noted that the jail is inspected annually by the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the United States Marshals Service and has “always received excellent ratings.’’

But another set of eyes will be looking at the jail under the terms of the agreement: Kerry Hughes, a psychiatrist from Atlanta, will serve as the independent auditor to determine compliance. He was recommended by the DOJ, according to Chief Deputy Brian Trainor. The Sheriff’s Office agreed to his appointment, in part because he has served as a medical director for a similar-sized jail, Trainor said.

The auditor will, within 30 days, review all policies, procedures and other documents required by the terms of the agreement. He will submit an initial report in three months and then every six months thereafter, noting whether the parish is out of compliance or has achieved substantial or partial compliance with each provision of the agreement.

The agreement ends when St. Tammany is deemed to have achieved substantial compliance with each provision for a year.

The agreement calls for DOJ to have unrestricted access to the jail, as well as its prisoners, staff and documents, with adequate notice provided to St. Tammany’s attorneys.

While DOJ did not press forward with a court-enforced agreement, the memorandum clearly states it can do so if St. Tammany doesn’t comply and in turn violates a prisoner’s constitutional rights.

St. Tammany is also required, under the terms of the agreement, to report to the DOJ and the independent auditor any prisoner death or serious suicide attempt within 24 hours.

In late June, 22-year-old Treshon Cousin wrapped a telephone cord found in the jail’s holding cell around her neck after she was brought in for failure to pay court fines. She was taken off life support several days later.