NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday's approval of a sweeping consent decree to reform Orleans Parish Prison was widely applauded by officials, prison activists and ordinary citizens.
But U.S. District Judge Lance Africk's order to curb the prison's rampant violence, rape and suicide did not come soon enough for the long string of victims who helped spark the court action.
Michelle Perdomo is still grieving one of those victims. Her twin brother, Michael Hitzman, killed himself within hours of being arrested in April 2010.
Perdomo has been a voice for reform at the troubled prison ever since.
"My brother's death was completely preventable if proper procedures would have been followed, if people had done their job," she said.
“Until you go through what my family has gone through, and what other family members of other inmates who have died have gone through, they can't understand why these changes need to be made and they need to be made now.”
Hitzman, a 32-year-old father of two small children, was arrested for failing to show up for court on a heroin possession charge. According to Perdomo, her brother turned to heroin after getting hooked on prescription drugs for a back injury.
Hitzman was in a mental tailspin, Perdomo said, and family members were trying to get him counseling at the time he was arrested. As he was being processed at the jail’s new intake center, Hitzman showed all the warning signs of being suicidal, but those warning signs apparently weren’t heeded.
"He was only there a few hours before he was able to hang himself in an isolation cell with his t-shirt. He had told guards what was going on, and they chose to ignore that."
While a video camera captured his last desperate moments, Hitzman repeatedly tried to string himself up with his shirt, but no guards were monitoring his isolation cell. Once he finally succeeded, his body wasn’t discovered for more than an hour.
Horror stories such as these have surfaced from the parish prison for decades. Just since 2006, activists have chronicled 37 questionable deaths at the prison.
But while individual lawsuits have been filed – many of which were settled with compensation for victims and their families – attorney Katie Schartzman and the Southern Poverty Law Center compiled scores of grievances over the past several years.
Last year, those grievances became the backbone for the class action lawsuit that spawned the consent decree that was approved by Africk on Thursday.
"We were ecstatic when we got the decision,” Schwartzman said. “The opinion and the findings of facts the things underneath it really went into detail about a lot of the things that our clients have been saying for years."
Schwartzman credited the victims – and their surviving family members – for putting a human face on the conditions. Michelle Perdomo was among the witnesses who provided powerful testimony at a weeklong hearing on whether federal intervention was needed.
"I think there's a real difference between reading on a piece of paper that somebody was stabbed or sent to the hospital and actually having a person sit in front of you and talk about what it was like to be tied up and sexually assaulted, for example," Schwartzman said.
As the lawsuit enters into a new phase – how to pay for the reforms – Schwartzman said the push for more humane conditions must continue every day.
And grieving survivors like Perdomo plan to do just that.
“I know that by speaking out or by telling people my story and what happened to my twin brother, that maybe this can be prevented in the future," Perdomo said. "You have deal with that and move on with your life as best as you can. But it does help to be able to talk or work toward some kind of changes so it doesn't happen again."