Zurik: St. Tammany Jail keeping inmates in holding cells for weeks, violating state’s minimum jail standards

Published: Feb. 28, 2020 at 9:32 PM CST
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ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. (WVUE) - A box. It is meant to hold things. In this case, the box is holding people -- in a holding cell at the St. Tammany Parish Jail, meant for holding inmates for a short period of time, but some inmates have spent weeks in the box for low-level offenses.

In this image from Jan. 20, 2020 surveillance at the St. Tammany Parish Jail nearly twenty...
In this image from Jan. 20, 2020 surveillance at the St. Tammany Parish Jail nearly twenty inmates are seen in the one holding cell.(St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office Surveillance Video)

The box -- about twenty-feet-long by ten-feet-wide.

“It was 17-18 people in there at all times, sandwiched like sardines,” another former inmate said.

We asked two Louisianians to recreate and retrace their time in the holding cell.

The cell has no shower, no bed, just a row of phones and a toilet open for the rest of the offenders to see.

The two men we interviewed were non-violent offenders -- one in for driving drunk and fleeing from police, the other for a probation violation. Both men spent more than two weeks locked up in the holding cell.

“The only time I left was for showers,” Baqer said.

The stories of the two men is against standards set up by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

“Whoever is in charge of this prison is not living up to the legal obligations,” Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said.

According to the minimum jail standards, new arrivals can be housed in holding cells for a maximum of 48 hours, then they must be transferred to an appropriate housing facility.

In St. Tammany Parish, instead, they are being stuffed in a small room 10-20 deep with few places to sleep.

Ahmed Baquer, was booked for a non-violent offense in the St. Tammany Parish Jail. He was kept...
Ahmed Baquer, was booked for a non-violent offense in the St. Tammany Parish Jail. He was kept in a holding cell for 17 days. The holding cells are meant to hold inmates for a few days until inmates are moved to a more-permanent jail cell.

Last year, Ahmed Baqer wound up in the St. Tammany Parish Jail after a night of some drinks and going to visit a friend.

“I was going pretty fast on my motorcycle,” he said. “I think they got me about 90 miles per hour.”

Police tried to pull him over on the Causeway, but he did not stop.

“I ran. I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said.

He finally pulled over and police arrested him. Months after bonding out, Baqer missed a court date.

“I didn’t have a ride honestly. My mom was out in Texas and she had the car. She said she forgot I had court,” Baqer said.

A bounty hunter found him and brought Baqer to the St. Tammany Parish Detention Center. He stayed inside a holding cell in the facility for 16 days.

“It’s the same for everybody,” Baqer said recalling everyone in the holding cell for a week or two.

A former inmate at the St. Tammany Parish Jail said he was kept in a holding cell for 17 days.
A former inmate at the St. Tammany Parish Jail said he was kept in a holding cell for 17 days.(WVUE-TV)

One former inmate asked us to withhold his identity, fearing retaliation in the parish where he lives. He received probation after a first-offense driving while intoxicated arrest but forgot to tell his probation officer of a move.

“I did. [I messed up.] I did, absolutely,” the former inmate said. “I’m fully accountable for my actions and not upset at all I was put in jail for my neglect.”

He takes full responsibility for not reporting the change, but what upset him was the 17 days he spent in the holding cell.

“They say when you go to jail, you give up rights, which I guess is true, but that is not human rights [that you give up.],” the man said.

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith (right) was scheduled to discuss the issues uncovered by...
St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith (right) was scheduled to discuss the issues uncovered by FOX 8 with Lee Zurik. An hour before the interview, Zurik was notified Scott Lee, public information officer for the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office would be doing the interview.(WVUE-TV)

FOX 8′s Lee Zurik had an interview scheduled with St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith. Less than an hour before the interview, the sheriff’s office notified Zurik that Smith would be canceling the interview and instead offered us the office’s public information officer.

“Unfortunately he is unavailable,” Capt. Scott Lee, public information officer for the department said. “I’m his Public Information Officer and I’m prepared to answer to the best of my ability every question you have about the jail facility. I can’t speak to why the sheriff is or is not a part of this interview.”

The sheriff’s office does not dispute FOX 8′s findings that it is ignoring the 48-hour law.

“I would say don’t commit a crime in St. Tammany Parish and you won’t have to go to holding at all,” Officer Lee said.

Zurik asked Capt. Lee if the offenders are not innocent until proven guilty. Capt. Lee replied “that’s not for the sheriff to determine, that’s for the courts to determine.”

“You realize you’re breaking the law yourself?” Zurik asked.

The St. Tammany Parish Jail in Covington seen in an undated file photo.
The St. Tammany Parish Jail in Covington seen in an undated file photo.(WVUE-TV)

“I would say you’re splitting hairs,” Capt. Lee said. “I would say you have someone who has been placed into custody what is a probable cause arrest, either by a warrant or warrantless arrest. And we have – the sheriff’s office -- has the obligation to house that individual.”

According to the department’s records, nearly half of their jail population comes from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, which places some inmates in parish detention centers across the state. Sheriff’s office records also show the department houses some federal inmates.

“The sheriff in his administration makes the decision on how many DOCs we’re doing to take, how many federal inmates we’re going to take and ultimately what it boils down to – it does ultimately boil down to dollar and cents,” Capt. Lee said. “There’s a dollar figure associated with a DOC inmate and a dollar figure associated with a federal inmate.”

The sheriff’s office was asked if they cannot follow the state’s own minimum jail standards, why are they accepting state and federal inmates and money.

“We have to fund the facility. We refuse to allow dangerous criminals run the streets,” Capt. Lee said.

Lee said it is true the department must follow laws but said in this situation “unfortunately, it’s a balance.”

FOX 8 collected a snapshot of one day -- January 22 -- at the St. Tammany Parish Jail. Records show the jail had 86 inmates in the four holding cells. Fifty-two of those inmates had been placed in holding for more than four days.

We found nine inmates locked up in holding for 12 days, eight offenders in holding for 13 days and four inmates in holding for 14 days.

But overloading or overcrowding does not seem to be the problem. After our interview, the sheriff’s office sent FOX 8 additional information that they had 1,031 available beds at the jail.

That means on the day Baqer should have been moved out of the holding cell, but wasn’t, the jail had about a hundred open beds. The jail’s daily report even shows -- 92 open beds.

“They have cells that are available,” Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said. "Now I’m in that rare situation of being speechless. I don’t understand why they’re keeping people in these holding cells. I didn’t want to believe it was for malicious purposes. I just assumed there was some neutral explanation like we have no other space.

This is not a new problem at the St. Tammany facility. FOX 8 found under the department’s previous administration, under Sheriff Jack Strain, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the department saying it was “concerning” prisoners were sleeping on floors and benches in the holding cells with little or no bedding articles.

The DOJ added “prisoners were required to remain in the holding cells for days if not weeks before they were assigned to housing units.

“This has been going on at least for eight years. and it looks like from what I’ve seen there’s been minimal or no improvement over this eight-year period and that’s pretty shocking,” Friedman said. “Just the fact that people are in jail doesn’t mean we don’t want to be humane about these things. Plus we also believe in rule of law. You have an agency that creates its own codes and then doesn’t live up to those obligations – that’s a lawless situation and there should be accountability and enforceability.”

The population of the holding cells varies -- some of the inmates are in fact violent offenders, while others made one mistake and hope to never be back, never to recreate their time in the box again.

After our interview, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office told FOX 8 the Minimum Jail Standards referenced in our story are guidelines and it is their “appreciation” they are not law. Because of that, they said they are breaching an administrative rule, not a law.

Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman disagrees.

The standards do state: “They are intended to reflect the minimum requirements which comply with court orders and protect the guaranteed rights of inmates in custody.”

The sheriff’s office also sent FOX 8 two civil actions in federal court that referenced poor jail conditions. Both of those cases were dismissed by the judge. We should point out in both cases the inmates did not have an attorney, court records showed they represented themselves in the cases.

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