NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Consent decree monitors told a federal judge Thursday that when it comes to the Orleans Parish jail, it's time to shut down and start over.
An independent monitor said in spite of years of court supervision, problems at the jail are getting worse, and now the U.S. Justice Department has said it may be seeking 'intervention' from the court in coming weeks.
"It's hard to say what will end up happening, but you can tell it's serious," said attorney Mary Howell, a longtime observer of the Orleans criminal justice system.
Lead monitor Susan McCampbell cited her most recent compliance report, dated March 17: "There has been no progress by the Orleans Parish sheriff's office toward compliance," adding that non-compliance has actually increased from 43 to 61 issues in the past six months, in spite of a new jail.
"Obviously the situation is very serious and you can feel that in the courtroom," said Howell.
The DOJ's intervention may be setting the stage for a "special master" to come in and run the jail.
"Its apparent problems with violence is very serious in terms of staff and inmates that are there. It seems there will be a shift in what's going on," said Howell.
And then there is the issue of prison suicide. One witness said he has never seen anything like what's going on in the Orleans jail. Medical monitor Dr. Raymond Patterson testified about an inmate who hung himself on March 5 after locking a shower door. Patterson said he has never seen a locking shower door in a prison in his 35 years of practice.
"This is a really top-notch monitoring team, some of the best in the country, and what you're hearing from them is very serious," said Howell.
To make things worse, Patterson said few changes are made. When he returned to the shower area this month, there were still locks on the doors and no guard on the floor. Patterson said he was told the guard was at lunch.
"What they are saying is we are in a very serious situation, that's apparent," said Howell.
In closing, the monitor's report said there are 3,200 local jails in the U.S., 80 percent of which are operated by a sheriff. The report said that "none have regressed to the level of dysfunction as in Orleans parish."
The U.S. Department of Justice first began investigating problems in the jail in 2008. Justice Department attorney Laura Coon told the court that in spite of unprecedented levels of assistance, "It does not appear we're on the same page to repair longstanding constitutional violations."