Drug Abuse, Moldy Walls, an Inmate with a Gun. Is Orleans Parish Prison the Worst City Jail in America?

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April 5 2013 4:36 PM

Drug Abuse, Moldy Walls, an Inmate with a Gun. Is Orleans Parish Prison the Worst City Jail in America?

Marlin Guzman
New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman speaks to reporters at a news conference outside the construction site of new jail facilities in New Orleans on April 4, 2013.

Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP

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Is the Orleans Parish Prison complex the worst city jail in America? The information that’s emerged from a federal courtroom this week—depicting the jail as wracked by violence, inmate suicides, overcrowding, dilapidation, and mismanagement—certainly makes a great case. As Brendan McCarthy reported for WWL TV, a “national prison consultant called the Orleans Parish Prison complex one of the worst jails he’s ever seen, and one of the worst large-city jails in the whole country.”

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And, on top of all that, it’s facing a viral video scandal. The court was treated to a highlight reel that makes it seem like Sheriff Marlin Gusman takes his management cues from Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes. They show inmates openly drinking, gambling, chatting on cell phones, and abusing drugs. At one point, a group of cheerful inmates relax in their cell with cans of Budweiser retrieved from a yellow cooler. (“Pop me one of them beers open, man,” the guy doing the filming says.) One inmate even leaves the jail for a night of carousing on Bourbon Street. One inmate has a freaking gun. (WARNING: The videos below contain some graphic scenes, including images of inmates injecting drugs. Watch at your own risk.)

If you were an inmate at Orleans Parish Prison, I guess you’d want to leave, too. (Though the complex is called “Orleans Parish Prison,” it is actually a jail, meaning that, at any given time, most of the people incarcerated there are pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of the crimes with which they’ve been charged.) Inmates have testified to rampant physical and sexual violence inside the complex’s walls. On Monday, one inmate “talked of being hog-tied, beaten with a mop handle and bucket, doused in urine and more,” and said that he would have been killed if he’d called for a guard. Another testified to the disgusting conditions in the medical unit: “mold on the walls, leaking toilets, water on the floor.”

How does a jail deteriorate like this? It seems to come down to financial hardship and extreme mismanagement. Some have noted that the prisoners must have had help from the prison staff to successfully smuggle contraband inside. (You think?) This idea is reinforced in the video, when a cell-phone-flaunting inmate notes that “they [presumably the guards] love money. They’ll do anything for money. So we getting it in.”

Sheriff Marlin Gusman comes across as a bit of an absentee landlord; in court yesterday, according to the Times-Picayune, Gusman denied the most extreme allegations and “testified that he can't recall even reading the reports of experts who found egregious conditions at the jail in recent years. He also said he only scanned, but did not carefully read, key court documents that preceded his signing of a federal consent decree in December that would govern a raft of reforms to the Orleans Parish jail system.” Who has time to read boring legal documents when there’s a hot craps game going on over in Cellblock B?

It’s also worth noting that prisons deteriorate because society doesn’t care about prison conditions. While the Orleans Parish Prison is an extreme example, there are a lot of jails that are more or less out of control. There is a deeply retributive streak in the American character that finds it acceptable to reinforce the punishment of a long prison sentence by having that sentence take place in the most austere conditions imaginable. This is how we get Supermax prisons and extended stays in solitary confinement; this is how we get overcrowded jails with moldy walls and violent consequences. It’s just not a public priority to reform prisons such that they’re safe, clean, and uniformly humane. Maybe it should be.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.