ACLU report slams New Orleans jail

The Baltimore Sun

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city's jail is plagued by inadequate medical care, violence, overcrowding and squalid conditions, according to a report to be issued today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU report is sharply critical of the Orleans Parish sheriff's office, accusing it of failing to seek expert guidance in developing a proper emergency preparedness plan for the jail, which wasn't evacuated until it flooded in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005.

The jail, the ACLU asserts, "appears doomed to repeat the mistakes made during Katrina. In the meantime, thousands of prisoners remain in the jail, where they are housed in unsanitary, unsafe and inhumane conditions."

The ACLU calls on the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Corrections to investigate the jail system's "inadequate medical and mental health care." It also recommends that the Justice Department's civil rights division investigate the jail's "unsanitary conditions" and violence caused by poor staffing.

While acknowledging problems, jail officials have defended their efforts, saying they are working on rehabilitation programs to reduce the number of people behind bars but have a duty to keep people in jail when judges order it. They also say that many people who are arrested are in need of social services that the police cannot provide.

The ACLU report says there are "abhorrent conditions" in some of the buildings that make up the jail complex, including a requirement that 70 prisoners share a single toilet in a crowded cell. "Many new arrestees spend two days or more in such a cell, sleeping directly on a floor littered with trash, urine and feces," the report said.

Some prisoners wait up to two weeks to be assigned a bed. The overcrowding has resulted in food shortages. Air conditioning failures have contributed to increased tension and fights among inmates.

One female inmate said she was put in restraints for 11 hours and when she complained about needing to go to the bathroom, a guard told her to urinate on herself, the ACLU said.

Mental health care "exists in a constant state of crisis," in part because there is a critical shortage of psychiatric care in the city, according to the report. "Even before the storm, Louisiana's mental health care system was widely regarded as underfunded and under-resourced," the ACLU said.

Inmates interviewed by ACLU investigators alleged being beaten by guards and other inmates. Several women inmates said that when a female prisoner refused to give up her bottom bunk for another prisoner, deputies took her from the cell and "when she returned, she appeared to have been beaten severely."

Overcrowding has left the jail with too few guards to maintain order or prevent security breaches, the ACLU said. In one building, two guards are responsible for 180 inmates, and "from their post, they cannot see what is happening inside of the cells," the report said.

In July, a 58-year-old disabled Vietnam War veteran suffered head trauma after being beaten by another inmate. Placed on a ventilator, he was found to have "virtually no brain function," the report said.

Maurice Possley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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