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Orleans Justice Center operating at around 50% staffing, documents show

We obtained figures through a public records request from mid-July that show the jail only had 53 percent of the deputies required to be full-staffed.

NEW ORLEANS — The riot by the Orleans Justice Center inmates in Block 2E over the weekend forced Sheriff Susan Hutson to resort to a very rarely used call for help.

“As a last resort we conducted a joint operation with the (State) Department of Corrections still using only the minimal amount of force necessary to regain control of the pod,” Hutson said in a video message she posted on Facebook on Monday.

Earlier on Monday, Hutson appeared before the City Council Criminal Justice Committee and explained that a lack of deputies is one of the core reasons behind the violence and unrest since she took office in May, including this weekend’s uprising in the “pod” housing about 40 inmates.

Hutson explained that the deputy shortage has led to less time that inmates can be outside of their cells to mingle with other inmates in a pod’s common area or exercise yard.

She said a list of demands written by the leaders of the inmate standoff included several requests she found reasonable, such as more books, more photographs from family and an additional television. But the one demand she said she couldn’t safely accommodate was more time outside of their cells.

“The main thing I hear is they want to be out from the morning to 10:30 at night which is not do-able with the staff we have,” Hutson told the council.

While Sheriff Hutson has not responded to WWL-TV’s requests for an interview, we obtained figures through a public records request from mid-July that show the jail only had 53 percent of the deputies required to be full-staffed: 173 out of 324 positions.

WWL-TV also obtained a more recent document from the day shift of Aug. 2, a day that included an inmate-on-inmate stabbing, just one of four such stabbings in a violent one-week period spanning July 28 to Aug. 3.

The Aug. 2 “daily staff duty lineup” shows even less than the 53 percent figure from July. Of 72 positions for deputies on the jail roster for the day shift, the log show that only 33 positions were filled, about 46 percent.

Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission said Hutson inherited the severe deputy shortage from her predecessor Marlin Gusman, who she handily beat in a run-off election in which she ran on a reform platform of a more progressive policies at the jail.

“When she came in there was a staffing crisis,” Goyeneche said. “Then she decided to place some of the inmates on lockdown and limit their access to the common areas to compensate for the lack of staffing.”

While Hutson campaigned on progressive policies inside the jail, she didn’t present any quick fixes to the staff shortages, which have been compounded over the years by low pay and difficult working conditions. 

Hutson just passed her 100-day mark as sheriff.

“She didn't adjust to the staffing crisis until there was a crisis in the facility with respect to fights, stabbings and homicides,” Goyeneche said.

Goyeneche raised questions about the tactics Hutson used that allowed the standoff with inmates to stretch from Friday night to early Sunday evening. Hutson said she was in no hurry to use force as her staff engaged in negotiations with the inmates, but that quickly changed Sunday when inmates damaged the sprinkler system, flooding the floor.

“It evolved into an unsafe situation that she had to call in the Department of Corrections to get their Special Response Team to help them quell the riot,” Goyeneche said.

Goyeneche noted that the Orleans Sheriff’s Office has long had its own Special Response Team, but Hutson offered no explanation as to why that in-house unit wasn’t able to handle the inmate takeover.

Once the DOC team arrived they regained control of the pod within a couple of hours. Hutson gave a detailed list of the less-than-lethal tools that were used: “Two flash bangs, 16 bag rounds, and one stinger ball,” she said.

Hutson also admitted in her Facebook video that six inmates had to be taken to the hospital following the standoff, including one suffering complications from diabetes. She also said a deputy suffered five broken ribs from slipping on the floor that had been flooded by inmates when they broke a sprinkler system.

Hutson, the city’s Independent Police Monitor for her previous 10 years in New Orleans, has no experience as a warden or corrections officer, and most members of her executive staff were brought in from the outside.

Goyeneche said Hutson and her staff are experiencing a “steep learning curve.”

“The people that are making the decisions are all learning on the job how to manage what I believe is the toughest jail in Louisiana,” he said. “I'd like to think that from every decision that she's made she re-assesses it and decides if that's the best thing.”

When asked about the sheriff’s plans to boost staffing, the sheriff’s office emailed a statement from Assistant Sheriff Pearlina Thomas:

“The lack of deputies has only reduced the time residents of the jail are permitted out of their cells by one hour each day,” she wrote. “To boost hiring, we are actively recruiting and vetting former deputies. We are expanding our recruiting plan to include advertising on radio, television, digital platforms, social media and in-person recruitment events…We also initiated an Employment Retention Committee. That committee has already proposed suggestions to increase retention, such as: childcare services.”

Thomas added that a recent recruit class is now assigned to the jail and more are on the way.

In her Facebook post, Hutson offered a blunt re-assurance about inmate conditions under her watch.

“The jail is not out of control," she said. “Not by a longshot.”

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