In light of the recent deaths and continued reports of deplorable conditions at Orleans Parish Prison, today the ACLU of Louisiana sought public records from Orleans Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman, including copies of the Sheriff's contracts and reports on prisoner deaths at Orleans Parish Prison. The ACLU of Louisiana initially made its request last year, but the Sheriff's office requested a $1.75 million deposit for copies of these public documents. After nearly a year of negotiation, including persuading the Sheriff to release some of the requested documents electronically and curtailing the scope of the request, the ACLU was able to reduce the requested deposit to $1,007.25. The ACLU of Louisiana still believes that this amount is excessive and unreasonable, but in view of the urgent conditions at Orleans Parish Prison, has decided to post the deposit in order to obtain the information.
"We need to know what is happening inside Orleans Parish Prison immediately, because people are dying in a jail shrouded in secrecy. We hope these records will shed some light on what exactly is going on there." said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "This fee is a burden on our resources, but we cannot continue to allow conditions at OPP to go unchecked, and we have no choice but to obtain the public records in whatever way we can." The ACLU believes that the initial $1.7 million bill from the Sheriff was another attempt to prevent any oversight and transparency of his office.
The ACLU is not alone in objecting to the secrecy that shrouds Orleans Parish Prison. State and local officials continue to express concern that the prison is run with unfettered discretion. In a recent legal pleading, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell noted that the State of Louisiana pays "out large sums of money with absolutely no oversight that the money will be spent by the Sheriff for the purposes intended." The Sheriff's lack of detail regarding revenues and expenditures has created contentious moments at New Orleans City Council meetings for years. There have also been continued reports that the Sheriff overbills the City of New Orleans for holding prisoners.
The ACLU continues to receive information indicating that conditions at Orleans Parish Prison are horrendous. Reports describe random beatings by guards, rampant prisoner-on-prisoner violence, open drug abuse and sexual assaults. The recent deaths, including one where a highly asthmatic prisoner was placed in five-point restraints, highlight how the prison is in shambles.
The only way currently available to assess conditions at Orleans Parish Prison is through reviewing these documents pertaining to the facility. Esman continued: "We hope these documents will give all of us a clearer idea of how public money is spent by the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office. There needs to be greater accountability at the prison. Given what we know already, taxpayers should ask: 'what is the Sheriff trying to hide, and where do our millions go?'"