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Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News
Email: dwoltering@wwltv.com | Twitter: @dwoltering

NEW ORLEANS -- Did staff at Orleans Parish Prison ignore a mentally ill inmate leading up to his death last week?

It's the latest in a string of deaths at the prison as Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Sheriff Marlin Gusman battle over who should pay for a federal consent decree.

'Clearly this is a facility that is dysfunctional,' said ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman.

Ricky Russell, 26, was charged with beating to death an elderly Gentilly woman last year. But like so many other inmates who have died in this prison, he had not even gone to trial yet. When he was jailed last June, Russell was suicidal and placed on suicide watch.

But a statement from the sheriff's medical director for the prison, Dr. Samuel Gore, said Russell's 'medications were adjusted to good effect.'

In recent months Russell was taken off of suicide watch. He was moved into a cell in the Conchetta facility.

'He was given an amount of medicine which was well beyond the ability of a mentally ill person to handle on their own,' Esman said.

In a sworn statement, fellow inmate Jaime Hernandez told the Southern Poverty Law Center that nurses gave Russell a supply of anti depressant and psychotropic pills that he kept on him.

Hernandez says '...no one monitored him when he took it. Sometimes he would sell it to people on the tier.'

According to the prison medical director, 'Russell was prescribed a seven-day supply of medicine.' Gore adds, 'Some mental health patients are permitted small quantities of medicine to self-administer, but only when deemed stable by the licensed psychiatrist.'

Former Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge Calvin Johnson, now executive director of the Metropolitan Human Service District, manages community-based mental health care in New Orleans.

'The fact that a guy with an obvious mental health issue is given an array of pills that he would have in his possession and then given instruction that he is supposed to take those pills without any other direction or without any other assurance that the guy is in fact taking those pills is just problematic,' Johnson said.

The night before he was found dead in his cell, Ricky Russell was up late laughing really hard and saying he was seeing things in his cell. That's according to a sworn declaration from fellow inmate Jaime Hernandez

'It would have been far more appropriate and probably would have saved his life if his medication was managed by guards, instead of turning it over to someone who was really not capable of doing that,' Esman said.

The U.S. Department of Justice notified the sheriff about a series of concerns after it investigated prison conditions and deaths.

The findings condemn OPP's so-called ' Keep On Person' medication program. The letter from the justice department says the prison '...fails to monitor inmates' medication intake....' and '... fails to protect inmates from improper use and harm.'

That letter was sent to Gusman in 2009.

In his statement after Russell's death, Gore said, 'The Department of Justice did not include any changes to this (medication) policy in the consent decree.'

Actually, the consent decree orders psychotropic medications to be 'administered in a clinically appropriate manner as to prevent misuse, overdose, theft or violence.'

The night before he died, a fellow inmate says Russell asked to see a psychiatrist. Inmate Jaime Hernandez says two nurses told Russell to make a sick call request.

'This consent decree is critical in terms of changing the reality over there,' Johnson said.

Through a spokesman, Gusman declined a request for an interview, saying 'the investigation into the death of inmate Russell is ongoing.'

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