Last year, a 66-year-old man found his way into the troubled Orleans Parish jail. Terry Smith was homeless, had a troubled history of his own, a minor rap sheet and mental health issues.
Inside, he got a jail jumpsuit, three tax-payer funded meals a day, and time to think about his arrest, at least until a single punch sent him to the hospital and essentially ended his life.
Today, Smith sits strapped to a wheelchair, his chin to his chest. He appears to have no family, no friends, no belongings. And he belongs to no one. He's just one of thousands of victims of Orleans Parish jail violence.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his Orleans Parish prison complex are at the center of a high-stakes court battle and federal consent decree. Some call it the worst jail in the country. They point to multiple escapes, dozens of deaths, and numerous other issues.
Dozens of inmates sent to hospital monthly
Over the years, the issue of non-fatal violence in the jail has largely gone unnoticed. Statistics from the U.S. Justice Department show that at least 700 assaults occurred in the facilities last year. At least 32 stabbings were reported.
These numbers are exponentially higher than other area jails and appear to be higher than other similar facilities across the country.
In New Orleans, an average of 50 to 60 jail inmates are rushed to the hospital each month. Most of these trips are due to violence, according to a jail expert. But only a fraction of these assaults ever result in charges or discipline.
“It's really clear that the violence levels at the jail are excessive and completely out of whack with other similar facilities of similar size across the county,” said Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the class action civil lawsuit that became the basis for the consent decree.
Gusman has largely shrugged off the claims. We called his office for more than a week-and-a-half and he declined to speak with us. Yet days ago, he sat for a 45-minute interview on WBOK radio. In that interview, he boasted that only one inmate has died due to violence during his tenure.
"The rates of violence. You don't want any violence,” he said on the radio. “But when you have individuals living together in those close proximities, you are going to have some."
His analysis doesn't account for the men with broken jaws, fractured faces, life-altering disabilities. If these violent outbursts occurred on the streets, the police would issue press releases and search for suspects, residents would call for action.
But inside the jail, an assault takes place at least twice a day and barely anyone notices. Many times, the victims, detainees who are innocent till proven guilty, slip through the cracks, just like Terry Smith.
Smith was picked up around Mardi Gras last year on a municipal charge of obstructing a public way, perhaps the most minor of all Carnival crimes.
Shortly later, he was attacked. A source inside the jail tells us his attack took place on the 10th floor of the House of Detention, a spot notorious for violence. The source says the 66-year-old was frail and had bones broken in his face.
It's unclear if anything came of it. The sheriff didn't respond to our inquiry.
Nonetheless, in early June, Smith was released. But days later, he was picked up for trespassing. He had a glass pipe on him, and was wanted for a parole violation. He went back to jail.
Sometime later, according to inmate’s affidavit filed federal court: Terry Smith was walking around the tier asking for coffee when a young guy punched him in the face.
The whole incident is summed up in a one-paragraph sheriff's report written three days after the incident. The report says that 20-year-old Edwin Lee punched Terry Smith in the face. It notes that Smith fell back, injured his head. It states Smith was in the hospital, and may not survive. (See incident report)
Court records and documents show that Lee has a history of abuse. In August 2011, Lee hit a deputy and threatened to kill him. A month later, Lee attacked an inmate sitting on a toilet. Two months after that, he punched another deputy.
Last spring, Lee was sent to a mental hospital. On his first day there, he stabbed another patient with a shank. Eventually he was sent back to OPP.
Finally, just days before he allegedly punched Terry Smith, Lee again beat up another inmate, knocking two of his teeth out, according to an incident report. That inmate told deputies that he was scared because, “Lee beats up on older inmates.”
Days later, Terry Smith went asking for coffee and a punch changed his life forever.
Red flags ignored
Attorneys involved in the consent decree lawsuit said the red flags were ignored. They said Smith and Lee should have never been on the same jail tier.
"One of our claims in our case is that OPP doesn't adequately classify people, meaning that they don't successfully keep people who may be vulnerable or susceptible to attack away from people who look like they would be a perpetrator of violence,” Schwartzman said.
“The facility really has an obligation to keep those people separate,” she said. “It is not something that they've been able to do historically, and it has resulted in a lot of injury to people."
Maggie Yates, an advocate with the Southern Poverty Law Center, visited Smith in the hospital. He was unable to speak with her or respond to her questions.
Weeks after the attack, Smith was moved to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state prison facility with much better healthcare services. He had been in violation of his parole, but he had not been convicted of his crimes.
In December, he was moved to a state nursing home in West Feliciana.
Yet, Smith is not in state prison custody. He’s just there.
A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health Hospitals, which runs the nursing home, declined to comment on Smith.
"We can't really say anything without consent from the person or their kin," said Kathleen Meyers.
As for the state's penal system, Smith is considered a parolee. "While he is not a (Department of Corrections) inmate, he is being supervised by Probation and Parole," according to Pam Laborde, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Schwartzmann, the attorney on the federal civil suit against the prison, said Smith’s case exemplifies the Sheriff’s shortcomings.
"There is a human cost, which we see with Mr. Smith. But there also is a fiscal cost,” she said.
"Now he's at a state-run nursing home, that's taxpayer dollars,” she added. “All because of security failures at OPP. Yeah. It's tragic on a human level. And it’s also obviously very expensive for us as taxpayers."
Too late for Terry Smith
Terry Smith still gets his three meals a day. And occasionally, a probation and parole officer checks in on him. So does Yates.
She says he doesn't talk, just grunts. It's unclear if his brain works. He can't use his arms, nor can he walk.
“He is existing, forgotten,” she said. “And because of his health, and his age, and his mental illness, he was destroyed and ruined by that place."
And he's technically free from prison, just a parolee.
We spent weeks trying to track down the story of Terry Smith. Through public records, we got bits and pieces of information: a social security number, a one-time address.
It appears he made stops in Florida, Navajo County, Arizona, San Bernadino, California, Shreveport. It looks like he stayed in community centers and rooming houses. We called them. But no one knows Terry Smith. He’s virtually non-existent, just a comatose body in a nursing home.
“There is a lot of Terry Smiths out there,” said Yvette Thierry, a member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “And when you’re a nobody, and you have no family, then you go under the radar and you get lost in the mix in everything… Lots of people get lost in the mix.”
For the near future, Terry Smith will remain in his own personal prison. His alleged attacker will remain in jail, charged with a myriad of crimes. And a handful of lawyers, politicians and the Sheriff will battle over the jail's future.
But for Terry Smith, it's too late.