A controversial video recently released showing inmates doing drugs, drinking beer, toying with a loaded handgun and gambling inside the closed House of Detention at Orleans Parish Prison caused outrage.
In Feb. 2012, Mike Perlstein explored the culture of contraband -- drugs, cellphones, shanks, booze -- inside the jail, smuggled into OPP, possibly by deputies, in the following investigative piece:
NEW ORLEANS -- In Orleans Parish Prison, defendants wait for their day in court, accused of everything from murder to rape to drug dealing. But crime doesn’t stop at the prison gate.
4 Investigates has documented a vast, hidden world of contraband within the prison’s many lockups, chronicled through three years of police reports and court records, along with interviews with ex-inmates and deputies.
And for many inmates caught with contraband, there’s a deputy who helped bring it inside.
Kenneth Johnson spent nearly three years in Orleans Parish Prison before his release late last year. He paints a scene in which drugs, cell phones and prison knives – known as shanks – are rampant throughout the prison.
“The deputies are just bringing it in there for them,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of drugs, cell phones, cigarettes, things of that nature. It’s flowing through there. It’s really flowing.”
Johnson is not exaggerating. A review of records shows multiple contraband arrests every month, often several a week.
Items such as cigarettes and marijuana are routine. Cell phones have become a hot item, complete with chargers and power cords.
But police reports reveal an even wider variety of illegal goods: pills, crack cocaine, mojo, cigars, even a bottle of Remy Martin cognac.
Prison activist Norris Henderson, a former inmate and director of Voice of the Ex-Offender, has heard dozens of accounts from within OPP. He doesn’t just see a prisoner problem, he sees a law enforcement problem.
The going rate for deputies to deliver contraband from the outside: $150 to $500 or more, according to police reports.
“Anything that’s on the street, you can get in the jail,” Henderson said. “Whatever you want. It’s like, have it your way. It’s almost scary the amount of stuff that’s actually going on. I think the police are focused on the wrong place. They need to shift to right down the street and around the corner.”
Contraband prosecutions have largely flown under the radar, but a review of the records show dozens of arrests and convictions of inmates and deputies alike.
Some of the names are familiar. Darryl Shields, now serving life for federal murder and drug convictions, was found with a shank. Dean Kelly, the Uptown rape suspect and former Aerosmith music video model, was booked when he was found with two eight-inch metal rods.
In a 2010 case investigated with the help of the Louisiana State Police and FBI, a contraband cell phone was suspected of being used to order a contract killing of a witness. And District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro cited easy cell phone access as one of the reasons why high-profile convicted killer Telly Hankton was moved out of OPP in late 2010.
For years, Louisiana ACLU Director Marjorie Esman has pushing for security reforms inside the prison. She said the U.S. Justice Department also is investigating, but contraband inside the prison continues to be a dangerous problem.
“It’s a lawless environment,” Esman said. “It seems to be uncontrolled. And of course, that contributes to the culture of lawlessness and violence inside the prison, which is part of what the Justice Department has been concerned about for years. And the ACLU as well.”
Sheriff Marlin Gusman acknowledges that contraband is a persistent problem in the prison. However, court records show that the sheriff’s office is taking an aggressive approach to investigating and prosecuting those caught dealing in contraband, including deputies, inmates and friends of inmates who help facilitate the deals from the outside by providing the money and illegal goods.
“Contraband is a problem in any jail facility,” Gusman said. “It’s a problem in schools, it’s a problem wherever you go. We’re committed to making sure that contraband doesn’t come in. And any that does come in, we’re going to get it out.”
The enforcement efforts, the sheriff said, are akin to a cat-and-mouse game between inmates and guards.
“They try every trick in the book,” he said of the inmates who try to beat the system. “I’m not going to give any of the tricks that they’re trying. But they try everything they can. That’s what they do – they spend all of their time trying to figure out to do it. We spend our time figuring out how to defeat them.”
Even with strict enforcement, Gusman admitted that security measures are no match for corrupt deputies. For that, the sheriff relies on a strict policy of prosecution to the fullest extent of the law for anyone who gets caught.
Prosecutors have obtained convictions against at least half a dozen deputies over the past three years, court records show. But just a few months ago, yet another deputy, Michael Conerly, was booked with bringing several cell phones into the jail. Conerly is awaiting trial on malfeasance and contraband charges.
“We don’t have any magic wand,” Gusman said. “We don’t have any halo we can pass somebody through when they come to work for us. What we have is a zero tolerance.”
Even with the tough sheriff’s office policy, ex-inmates and guards who requested anonymity say the contraband continues to flow. Johnson, who spent time in three different facilities during his three years behind OPP’s bars, speaks from first-hand experience.
“It’s a party,” Johnson said. “They really get a large quantity of drugs in there. Like I said, it’s a mini-world in there.”