NEW ORLEANS - Forty-year-old inmate Willie Lee died at Orleans Parish Prison back in March after getting into a fight with another inmate. The initial autopsy by the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office showed Lee died of cardiac arrest, but the coroner has yet to say whether it was a homicide or if Lee died of natural causes.
Lee's death gives those outside the walls of OPP a glimpse of some of the problems that still plague the prison, despite the Federal Court’s intervention to try and raise conditions at the facility to Constitutional standards.
But Lee was much more than just an inmate who died at OPP. He was someone’s father and someone’s son. The loss of Lee led tears to flow at a small Central City church before he was laid to rest last Thursday.
“Loving, caring father, son,” his mother, Margie Hulitt described.
The 40-year-old was arrested for criminal damage to property on March 15. It would be his last trip to OPP. The Orleans Sheriff's Office said in a press release that Lee died from cardiac arrest after a fight with another inmate on March 23rd.
But inmates who were there wonder whether Lee’s life could've been saved.
“His leg was like shakin’ and the guy was like choking him so when the deputy came out from upstairs, he was like at the gate like, ‘Y'all stop it. Y'all stop fighting.’," said Steven Portis, a former inmate at OPP who witnessed the fight.
Portis said it took several minutes for the deputy to get inside tent three to break it up. The guard had to wait for another deputy to go in, something the Orleans Sheriff's Office said is standard safety practice. They would not say whether the initial guard was the only one watching the tent, but that’s the situation Portis and other inmates described: one deputy guarding 88 inmates that night in Tent 3.
“They was like fussin’ at him for him to get up and they told him that he couldn't get up. He was saying that something was wrong, that he couldn't feel his legs and he couldn't breathe,” Portis said.
That was immediately after the fight, around 10:15 p.m. he estimated. The news was still on, and Porteus said the guards normally shut the TVs off after the news. A statement from the Sheriff’s Office said the fight broke out at 10:22 p.m.
Portis said Lee was struggling from the minute the fight broke up, yet deputies continued to threaten him with pepper spray.
“He was like if you don't get up, I'm gonna spray you. He kept saying, ‘Man, I can't.’ So, he like sprayed him on the side of his face and he flinched and he's like, ‘Dude, I'm telling you I can't get up’,” Portis said.
According to Portis, the deputy pepper sprayed Lee even though Lee was having trouble breathing.
When Lee still wouldn’t stand up, Portis and other inmates say the deputy then dragged Lee out of tent 3 by the handcuffs.
The Sheriff's Office said pepper spray was not used on Portis.
Hulitt said she wants answers because they haven't told her much of anything about what happened to her son.
“Nothing but he had a heart attack on the news,” she said.
Portis and other inmates who wanted to remain anonymous wonder whether Lee’s life could've been saved.
“The inmate that he had a fight with told me that they worked on Willie for about a hour,” Portis said.
Records from New Orleans EMS show they got the call from the jail at 11:15 p.m., even Lee complained about having trouble breathing an hour earlier, according to the inmate witnesses.
The Sheriff’s Office said in an email that the nurse on duty said Lee first complained about his leg hurting after he had been taken to another tent, tent 1. “After an interval” the nurse said he complained about shortness of breath, and when he complained about chest pains, they called an ambulance.
“You gonna be dead a half day before somebody come in there,” Hulitt said.
Willie Lee's story also sheds some light on the current conditions OPP.
“Unfortunately that's true, that the conditions over the past two years haven't really improved,” said Katie Schwartzmann, the Director for the New Orleans office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the advocacy group now behind the lawsuit that led to federal intervention.
Schwartzmann is the attorney for the inmates who filed suit against the Sheriff's Office for inhumane conditions at OPP two years ago. The consent decree is the court's order to bring the jail up to Constitutional standards.
Schwartzmann said she wasn’t surprised to hear one deputy may have been guarding nearly 90 inmates the night Lee died.
“The staffing issues at the Sheriff's Office do make it difficult for deputies to respond when there is a crisis. Our clients will tell us they have to bang on the door, scream and yell for prolonged periods of time to get a deputy's attention to get somebody to enter the tier if there's a fight or if there's a medical emergency,” Schwartzmann said.
The first compliance report from federal monitors in February did give the Sheriff's Office credit for making some progress, and for providing information to their team. But the monitor also found the Sheriff's Office largely non-compliant with most of the requirements of the decree.
In terms of medical care, the monitor wrote, "At the Orleans Parish Prison there is risk of serious harm to prisoners with serious medical needs."
The monitors also found the level of violence is still high. Inmates recently incarcerated, including Portis say there were fights daily.
The Sheriff's Office said there were two separate fights among women in tent 7 the night before Lee died. A spokesman said pepper spray was used to break one of them up, but again, wouldn’t say whether pepper spray was used on Lee.
“It's just filthy in there. Nasty,” Portis said. And Schwartzmann agreed.
“It's disgusting in there. There is mold and mildew and um, human waste, poor air circulation,” she said.
Accused rapists and murderers aren’t the only ones who end up locked up at OPP.
From people accused of DWI's to traffic tickets to armed robberies, everyone arrested in New Orleans gets sent to intake and processing, and placed in a big holding "tank", as the inmates call it, until they're assigned to a bed.
Portis was arrested on an old theft charge and he said he was in the tank for three or four days, sleeping on the floor, before he was processed and sent to tent 3.
“You don't shower while you're over there,” he said.
Schwartzmann said judging by the number of complaints the MacArthur Center gets from inmates daily, the processing time has worsened in recent months.
“It is a volatile situation because you have people from all different neighborhoods in the city, or some people from out of town, tourists, thrown in one holding tank with various levels of charged offenses,” Schwartzmann said.
It's one of many reasons Willie Lee's family said they are pushing for answers about what exactly happened to him at OPP.
“Anybody could be in there,” Hulitt continued, “They need to get right. And somebody need to let them know that those are human beings back there."
Judge Lance Africk has a hearing scheduled in his Federal courtroom about the possibility of a settlement agreement between the City of New Orleans and the Orleans Sheriff to fund the reforms spelled out in the consent decree. Experts said a deal over the funding would be a significant step forward in trying to raise the conditions at OPP to Constitutional standards.