NEW ORLEANS -- The arrest Tuesday of an Orleans Parish Sheriff’s deputy, accused of having sex with an inmate and smuggling drugs into the prison, was jarring, even by the standards of the long-troubled Orleans Justice Center.
But to experts who have followed the prison and its problems, the arrest of 26-year-old prison guard Oshen Heilman is just the tip of the iceberg.
“When you're hiring people at $12-an-hour to start out as a guard in that jail, and somebody offers you five-hundred dollars to smuggle in some contraband, that's tempting,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Supporting Goyeneche’s theory are the two dozen or so arrests of New Orleans deputies on contraband charges over the past eight years. Contraband arrests have been connected to cigarettes, illegal drugs, cell phones, even weapons.
Four inmates suffered heroin overdoses in one day in November and were hospitalized after being revived with the opiate-antidote drug naloxone. That followed the death of an inmate in February due to a cocaine overdose.
While the New Orleans lock-up isn't the only jail facing contraband problems, but it is one of the few operating under a federal consent decree designed to improve dangerous conditions for inmates.
“We are under a federal consent decree right now and monitors have reported that things are actually getting worse,” said Sade Dumas of Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.
Dumas’ group believes management at the jail is to blame for the persistent problems with deputies, including the chronic issues of low pay, high turnover, and disciplinary issues.
“So our concern right now is with the leadership,” Dumas said. “Who are they hiring? Why are they understaffed?”
While Sheriff Marlin Gusman remains the elected leader of the sheriff’s office, the day-to-day management of the jail has been turned over to Compliance Director Gary Maynard as part of the consent decree.
The arrest of Heilman is just one recent indicator of the challenges facing Maynard as he tries to bring the jail up to the Constitutional standards required by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, the judge overseeing the consent decree.
Heilman was booked with sexual battery and malfeasance for having sexual contact with an inmate and multiple counts of bringing contraband – marijuana, suboxone, ibuprofen and other pills – into the prison.
A police report indicates that Heilman was confronted when she arrived at work and admitted everything when questioned by investigators.
“Deputy Heilman went on to admit that she was compensated $500 in U.S. currency to deliver the package,” the investigators wrote about one shipment she said she delivered to an inmate on Dec. 13.
The sexual contact with an inmate – a man awaiting trial for murder – happened more than once, according to the report.
“Deputy Heilman admitted to being involved in a romantic relationship with Inmate (Michael) Monroe,” the report states. “Deputy Heilman stated that she and inmate Monroe touched each other’s genitals.
While the sexual contact was portrayed as consensual, Heilman was booked on three counts of sexual battery because prison inmates cannot legally given consent.
Goyeneche believes that there is one bright spot to Heilman’s arrest.
“As upsetting as this is to the general public, I think it's a sign that the sheriff's office is doing a much better job of policing themselves,” he said. “The sheriff’s office has been investigating this case for more than a month and, from what I’ve been told, some very good investigative work went into this.”
Heilman was released Tuesday on her own recognizance. Her next court is scheduled for Jan. 16.