Renewed optimism over reform prospects at New Orleans jail
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge expressed renewed optimism Wednesday about the prospects for change at the notoriously dangerous New Orleans jail as court-appointed monitors credited the lockup’s new director with improving staff morale.
Enthusiasm was tempered with acknowledgements that the problems that have long-plagued the jail continue, as evidenced by the latest inmate death. Two weeks ago, inmate Kentrell Hurst died while going through detox for substance abuse at the jail.
The hearing was held in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Lance Africk. He approved a 2013 agreement, known as a consent decree, to settle a lawsuit by inmate advocates and the U.S. Justice Department against the elected official tasked with running the jail, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
As progress in implementing reforms lagged, Gusman agreed in 2016 to cede authority over the jail to a court approved compliance director.
When former Maryland corrections official Gary Maynard, a highly regarded corrections veteran, took on the job in the fall of that year, it led to optimism.
But progress remained slow and Maynard abruptly resigned in late January as monitors expressed disappointment of continued danger for inmates and staff at the jail. Inmate assaults against each other and staff, rampant smuggling of contraband, drug abuse and suicide continued.
Longtime corrections expert Darnley Hodge was appointed to replace Maynard on an interim basis.
Africk said Wednesday he has noticed a cleaner facility and a change in the attitude of staff at the lockup.
The head monitor for the court, former Travis County, Texas, Sheriff Margo Frasier, delivered an upbeat appraisal of conditions observed in monitors’ latest inspections.
She said jail staffers appear more committed to the job and Hodge’s efforts to reorganize inmate supervision efforts appear to be paying off.
“The staff is gaining control in the jail,” Frasier said.
Medical expert Dr. Robert Greifinger said emergency room visits by inmates have dropped. And monitors said reporting of violent incidents is now more complete, which may result in an uptick in the number of such incidents in their next report even if violence is going down.
Still, monitors said numerous problems need to be addressed, including a lack of sufficient staff that may require the city of New Orleans, which funds the jail, to provide more resources.
Hodge discussed his efforts in brief testimony, describing an organization that essentially divides the one large jail building into several smaller organizational units. “We’ve broken the large jail into six smaller jails,” he said.
It remained unclear at the hearing whether Hodge will apply to hold the directorship permanently — or when the applications will be sought.
Attorneys for inmates and the Justice Department were measured in their statements. “We are cautiously optimistic,” the department’s Kerry Dean told Africk.
“I’m hopeful that we’ve turned a corner,” said Emily Washington, attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. But she also said failures in medical care, staffing, supervision and accountability contributed to Hurst’s death two weeks ago.