Conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) violate the constitutional rights of prisoners, according to the findings of an investigation into the jail by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that was prompted by the American Civil Liberties Union.
According to the findings, which were released today, prisoners at OPP are not adequately protected from harm, including physical harm from excessive use of force by staff and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Prisoners at the jail also receive inadequate mental health care, including proper suicide prevention, and there are serious deficiencies in the ways the medications of prisoners are managed, according to the investigation's findings.
"The findings of the DOJ investigation only confirm what we have known for years," said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "For too long, prisoners at OPP have been subjected to inhumane conditions that jeopardize their health and well being and we can only hope that the results of DOJ's investigation spur the kinds of meaningful and imperative reforms that the constitutional rights of all OPP prisoners are upheld."
The ACLU has for years engaged in litigation and advocacy surrounding the deplorable conditions at OPP. In 2005, the ACLU asked the New Orleans City Council to review the conditions inside the jail, prompting Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman to say two months later that ACLU reports of unconstitutional conditions were not credible and that people should not rely on "crackheads, cowards and criminals to say what the story is." The ACLU called for a federal investigation in a 2007 letter to DOJ, and last year the ACLU conducted a series of interviews with prisoners and provided DOJ with first hand accounts of their suffering.
The DOJ investigation was conducted by the Justice Department's civil rights division, and its findings were revealed in a letter from Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King to Gusman. According to the letter, the investigation found several examples where OPP officers openly engaged in abusive and retaliatory conduct, which resulted in serious injuries to prisoners. In some instances, the investigation found, the officers' conduct was so flagrant it clearly constituted calculated abuse.
The investigation also found that OPP fails to provide inmates with adequate mental health care that complies with constitutional standards. Specifically, suicide prevention practices at OPP are "grossly inadequate," and the jail suffers from inadequate intake, referral, staffing, assessment and treatment processes, according to the investigation.
"Jail officials have a constitutional obligation to provide basic levels of medical and mental health care to the prisoners in their care," said Katie Schwartzmann, Legal Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "As the DOJ makes clear, there is simply no excuse for not abiding by those obligations."
As part of their investigation, Justice Department officials visited OPP in June, August and November of last year, and were accompanied during two of those visits by a corrections expert and a medical health care expert. The experts filed their own reports regarding conditions in the jail, and the ACLU today filed a public records request seeking access to those reports.
A copy of the letter from the DOJ to Sheriff Gusman is available online at www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/41107lgl20090911.html
A copy of the ACLU's public records request is available online at www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/41105lgl20090922.html