NEW ORLEANS - The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office downplayed an inmate disturbance at the parish prison Friday as a situation that was under control within an hour. Attorneys representing inmates in the jail’s consent decree lawsuit described a chaotic series of disturbing events that endured for closer to eight hours.
In a letter to Gary Maynard, the jail’s court-appointed compliance director, the attorneys described a harrowing scene in which inmates breached a control room, opened computerized cell doors and set fires that required a response by the fire department.
In a press release issued Friday night after the disruption, the sheriff’s office said that “12 inmates temporarily barricaded themselves in a housing unit…while the deputy was temporarily out.”
The statement declared that the disruption lasted from about 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. and once the situation was under control, five inmates required medical attention.
The letter Sunday from attorneys at the MacArthur Justice Center stated that after talking to inmates, they found that the disturbance “was in fact a series of incidents on the fourth floor that began at around 1 p.m., including a prisoner who threatened (for over an hour) to jump from the mezzanine of the tier.”
“It is our understanding that what has been reported as deputies ‘directing the inmates back into their cells’ was the subsequent use of…force against the unarmed prisoners, including possible deployment of pellet guns, striking prisoners with batons and other devices, and physical force.”
Lead attorney Emily Washington, citing transparency provisions of the consent decree, requested a long list of records and other evidence about the uprising, including video from inside the prison.
“It's horrifying,” Louisiana ACLU director Marjorie Esman said. “Clearly, somebody wasn't doing their job. There's no other way that this could happen.”
Esman noted that the disturbance took place in the city’s $150 million lockup, a jail that was touted as using state-of-the-art prison design. It was opened in late 2015 under the sweeping consent decree as a remedy for the problems that plagued the old parish prison. The jail has 1,438 beds, but is only about half-full due to staffing and training problems.
Norris Henderson, a longtime prison activist, said a jail, no matter how technologically advanced, is only as good as the people running it.
“For the inmates to be able to open a cell for everybody else to get out is totally ridiculous. You ask the question, who's on first?” Henderson said. “It's really shocking. The promises were that once we get this new facility all of the horror stories we were hearing would go away. But I tell people all the time, buildings don't change culture.”
The sheriff's office issued a brief statement Monday saying that the disturbance remains under investigation and that the inmates involved could be criminally charged for their actions.