Day 1: OPP Consent Decree fairness hearing

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The week-long evidentiary hearing on the proposed federal consent decree hearing for Orleans Parish Prison began today, including testimony from one former inmate who says he was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted in the Old Parish Prison facility, as well as prison security and operations expert Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, who called OPP "likely the worst big city jail in the United States."

In cross-examination, the city's legal team, which is fighting the consent decree because of its multimillion-dollar annual price tag, attempted to deflect blame from staffing levels and funding to management, namely Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

"OPP is terrible ... It's operating worse than badly. In my many years of working with jails and prisons, it's the worst jail I've ever seen," said Schwartz, who has worked as a jail and prison consultant for more than 35 years.

Schwartz, who wrote the critical report "An Operational Review of Orleans Parish Jails" in 2008 with Rodney Miller for the for the National Institute of Corrections, said today that OPP is comparable to the Shelby County Jail in Memphis, which is similar in size and demographics and was also regarded as one of the worst local jails in the country and was placed under a similar decree in the late 1990s. Schwartz said it has since experienced a remarkable turnaround.

(More after the jump)

OPP's most serious signs of failure are frequent inmate on inmate violence, escapes and problematic uses of force by staff.

As for violence, according to Schwartz, in 2012, OPP recorded 600 emergency room trips for serious injuries and 90 for mental health emergencies. Of the injuries, he said, "far more than half" resulted from violence. In contrast, Shelby sent seven inmates to the emergency room with serious injuries from violence last year, and only eight mental health emergencies.

An underlying reason is lack of supervision, he said. "OPP is the most understaffed jail I've seen."

That contributed to a brutal attack on one inmate who testified today. The inmate (who Gambit is not identifying) claims he was hogtied, beaten and sexually assaulted for hours by more than a dozen men in the Old Parish Prison facility. During the incident, which he believes from lights out until breakfast, one guard performed a single, perfunctory check of the dorm tier, without bothering to walk through it. The inmate said he believed the attack was a "hit" ordered by another inmate he was testifying against.

The inmate waited several days — until a ranking deputy visited his tier to do a supervisory check — to report the attack.

"If you're not bleeding with blood coming from your face, (non-rank deputies) are not going to take it seriously," he said. "A ranking officer, whether she wanted to or not, has to look into something like that.

Eventually 11 people were arrested for the attack but, he said, their charges were dropped.

Schwartz, who was on the stand for most of the day, said that each housing tier should have at least one guard assigned to it per shift, but because OPP is so understaffed, it's normal for a guard to be assigned to two tiers. And not infrequently, one guard will be assigned to four tiers.

"That means, in that situation, at most, inmates are supervised one-quarter of the time," Schwartz said, and that's not accounting for staff bathroom breaks, meals or, frequently, socializing instead of working. He said he found that staff members often falsified reports to show they had performed rounds when they had not.

"They need hundreds more deputies," Schwartz said.

The staff that they do have, he said, are poorly paid and trained. What reform policies the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office has enacted — like the one requiring all deputy uses of force to be investigated by the Internal Affairs Division — aren't properly disseminated and often ignored.

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney showed, as an example, a 2012 investigation of a Special Operations Division detective who hit an inmate. Despite multiple SOD witnesses, the detective in question was the only person who provided a narrative account. He then signed off that it was a justified use of force. A subsequent IAD investigation was summarized in one paragraph, and no witnesses were interviewed.

The provisions of the consent decree, as written, are minimally necessary to ensure humane conditions at OPP, Schwartz testified.

In cross-examination, former U.S Attorney Harry Rosenberg, who's representing the city, did not question Schwartz's assessment of the conditions at OPP themselves so much as point blame to mismanagement.

"It sounds like you're making a pretty good case for the consent decree," U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said, at one point, after Rosenberg took Schwartz through a litany of alleged areas of non-compliance under Gusman.

"The city reserves the right to request a receiver to run Orleans Parish Prison," Rosenberg said.

Point by point — inmate violence, alleged falsification of reports by deputies, inadequate mental health and medical care — Rosenberg went through Schwartz's earlier testimony, his recent pre-trial report and his 2008 report, noting that conditions had not improved, have in fact gotten worse, in the five years OPP has been under the federal microscope, all under Gusman's watch.

"In large measure, would you agree that a large part of these problems are attributable to the sheriff's inability to lead and inability to manage?" Rosenberg asked, to which Schwartz replied, "Yes, I would."

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