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How Sheriff Hutson and community leaders are responding to wave of violence at Orleans Parish Jail

Michael Isaac Stein
The Lens

Criminal cases in New Orleans headed back online at the beginning of the week, not due to COVID, but due to violence and staffing issues.

Following two recent deaths at the parish jail and other injuries among inmates, the Sheriff Susan Hutson hastily pulled deputies from their courthouse posts to bolster staffing at the jail.

To learn more about the recent wave of violence at the Justice Center and what’s being done to address it, WRKF’s Adam Vos spoke with Will Snowden, director of Vera Institute of Justice - New Orleans.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Adam Vos: Can you help get us up to speed on what the situation was this weekend at the New Orleans Jail?  

Will Snowden: Certainly. So we first need to recognize it's always a tragedy when any person is brought to the jail and doesn't return to their community. Over the weekend, we received news that there were two individuals who died at the jail. I believe one was a result of injury sustained during a fight in the jail. And the second was an individual who I think they described as perhaps having spinal injuries and head trauma.

And thinking about discontinuing the normalization of people dying at our jail, we have seen Sheriff Hutson react by pretty much having an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure all measures are being taken — to ensure the safety of the people that are being brought to the jail.

On this being an urgent matter for her? I believe we've heard Sheriff Hutson talk about violence being addressed for the time. She’s having everybody from the courts to the different security details to every deputy that's available to come help secure the jail in response to the two people that died over the weekend.

AV: So let's talk about staffing issues. Is security lax at the New Orleans Jail compared to other similar lockups? What does the staffing look like there? The Sheriff blamed it on a critical staffing shortage, which played a role in the issues over the weekend.

WS: I wouldn't describe the security being lax at the jail. The biggest concern is a staffing shortage. During the fall budget hearing, then Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who is no longer running the jail, informed the City Council that there were more than 100 vacant budgeted staff positions. And so Sheriff Hutson inherited an understaffed security at the jail.

Although she recognizes this staff shortage, my understanding is that she's doing everything she can to recruit deputies, to improve their retention, to improve the culture of corrections and making the environments more supportive and restorative, which will help in terms of reducing the high staff turnover rate that has been experienced in years past.

AV: Now there has been a trend of issues in the criminal justice and jail system in New Orleans in years past. What are some of the problems, and how does that compare historically to the problems that have been there? Has there been an improvement?

WS: So we think about issues dating back at least a decade with the Orleans Parish Jail. There's something called a federal consent decree, which is essentially a tool that is utilized when there is a lawsuit and an entity has been sued to address the constitutional concerns. And so the federal consent decree, which governs this lawsuit for our jail, has been in place for around 10 years.

The remaining issues at the jail are largely related to the conditions of confinement for people with acute and subacute mental illnesses. Now there are efforts taking place right now that aim to address the remaining issues involving bringing the current jail into compliance with the federal consent decree, while also providing a continuum of care for people with mental illness and substance use issues that are provided in the community.

We know that providing this care in the community will actually help reduce the number of people with these issues being brought to the jail in the first place, and a continuum of care can look like a community solution center that provides treatment and care for people with substance use issues and mental illness.

And so thinking about how do we bring our jail into compliance with the constitution? Yes, there are things that need to be taken care of inside the jail, but there are also measures that we could be taking outside of the jail as well.

Adam is responsible for coordinating WRKF's programming and making sure everything you hear on the radio runs smoothly. He is also the voice of Baton Rouge's local news every afternoon during All Things Considered.
Alana Schreiber is the managing producer for the live daily news program, Louisiana Considered. She comes to WWNO from KUNC in Northern Colorado, where she worked as a radio producer for the daily news magazine, Colorado Edition. She has previously interned for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and The Documentary Group in New York City.

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