Three Centuries of ‘Extreme Violence and Trauma’ at New Orleans Jail

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New Orleans

Orleans Justice Center, built 2015. Courtesy Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office.

Improving conditions at New Orleans’ jail, recently renamed and rehoused in a new facility, the Orleans Justice Center, is a “prerequisite for eradicating inequity in the city,” according to a new report.

For three centuries, African Americans in have been detained in unsanitary cells, refused medical and dental care,” have been subjected to “extreme violence and trauma,” and have been exploited as a source of cheap labor, says the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law research paper, published in the March 2018 edition of The New Orleans Prosperity Index: Tricentennial Edition.

According to the paper, very little has changed—despite a 2013 consent decree between New Orleans and the Department of Justice that called for 173 reforms in jail conditions and administration.

Only 17 of those reforms had been enacted as of May 2017, the paper said, noting that the mortality rate for the Orleans Parish jail in 2017 was four times the national average. It added that many inmates “experience horrific violence by both other inmates and staff.”

Noting that in the first year of operating a new jail facility,  from 2015-2016, the paper cites figures showing at least 14 allegations of sexual assault, 412 inmate on inmate assaults, and 52 inmate assaults on staff.

“Violence is pervasive throughout the facility,” and the reform efforts have done little to meet the challenges of “operating a safe, humane, and constitutional jail” or address the extent to which jail conditions have contributed to racial inequality in the city, according to the report.

In 2005, African Americans comprised 90 percent of the jail population, despite constituting only 66 percent of the city’s population.  By May of 2016 the percentage of African Americans had only dropped to 81 percent.

“Improving jail conditions is a prerequisite for addressing inequality in New Orleans,” says the report by Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola.

The report, calls for a “systemic” strategy that gives the community a “direct role in the administration of the jail.”

The author focuses on one example of such an approach that she argues has had promising results.

The Community Advisory Group (CAG), created in 2017 after the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge grant was awarded to the City of New Orleans, comprises 28 people from different neighborhoods around the city, including law enforcement professionals, the formerly incarcerated, and teachers.

The CAG’s mission is to pressure city officials to increase public safety “through reducing the jail population and reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the New Orleans criminal legal system.”

Although the group’s mission is focused on devising strategies to reduce prison populations, the conditions of jails affect communities, and therefore public safety.

Independent oversight of jails and prisons is considered critical to effect lasting change in the jail, writes the author.

While community organizations such as the Orleans Parish Prison Coalition, Women with a Vision, and Voice of the Experienced have scored some achievements in pursuing New Orleans jail reform, no mechanism exists for them to hold city officials and the Sheriff accountable.

The CAG also has a platform to achieve its goals through “its three voting seats on the Jail Population Management Sub-committee of the New Orleans Criminal Justice Council.” The committee is chaired by the Mayor.

To succeed in reforming the New Orleans jail, leaders in the city government and criminal justice groups must strongly support the CAG and community engagement in the jail, writes the author.

Support of this kind could mean improved transparency of jail operations and data, and help develop a “public oversight entity staffed by the community.”

Reviewing the jail’s history, the report noted that inhumane conditions in the jail have existed since its original construction as Orleans Parish Prison in 1721.

In the 18th century, “the prison categorized, housed, and exploited suspected runaways; inflicted corporal punishment on recalcitrant slaves at their master’s request…and exploited slave and inmate labor to build the city.” The 1807 Regulations for the Police Prison provided financial incentive for the abuse of slaves, offering payment to jailers anytime they beat an enslaved prisoner.

The 20th century brought no real improvements. In the 1950’s, complaints of beatings by jail staff were reported in the dozens. From the 1960s to the 1990s, sexual assaults were rampant and the threat of attack unremitting. In the 1990s, the use of stun belts delivering 50,000 volts of electricity developed.

Many of New Orleans’ African American neighborhoods contain some of the highest concentrated incarceration rates, which can damage social and economic network, by contributing to, among other things, single-parent households and poverty.

Yet the parish jail is still violating the civil rights of citizens: in 2017, the Orleans Parish jail “housed an average of 1,586 people on a given day, of which 91 percent had not had a judge determine their guilt or innocence.”

The collateral consequences of jail detention on family relationships is felt more acutely in Louisiana than in other communities, the paper said.

Many of New Orleans’ African American neighborhoods contain some of the highest concentrated incarceration rates, which can damage social and economic networks by contributing to, among other things, single-parent households and poverty.

 

Yet the parish jail is still violating the civil rights of citizens: in 2017, the Orleans Parish jail “housed an average of 1,586 people on a given day, of which 91 percent had not had a judge determine their guilt or innocence.”

The full study, entitled “The Impact of 300 Years of Jail Conditions,” can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared with notes from TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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