Zurik: Jail numbers show crowded holding cells are isolated to St. Tammany jail

Parish official claimed the crowded holding cell was “not just in St. Tammany”

Cell Blocked with Lee Zurik

ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. (WVUE) - When FOX 8 took first exposed the crowded holding cells in St. Tammany Parish that kept inmates well past the 48-hour minimum jail standard, a department official said the problem was “not just in St. Tammany." However, a review of area jails paint a different picture.

A review of the sheriff’s office video of the holding cell shows little movement among the inmates packed inside the cell.

“Every three days they let us shower,” one inmate said.

While inmates have said time outside the cell was rare, the sheriff’s office had a different explanation.

“Is it fair to say they are completely locked down 24/7 in holding? The answer is absolutely not,” Capt. Scott Lee, a public information officer for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, said. “While technically they are assigned in the holding area, they are not strictly confined to that space for that timeframe. So there is some mobility of the inmate, or the pre-trial detainee at that point while they are in the holding area.”

A review by FOX 8 of nearly 100 hours of video reveals inmates only seem to leave for an occasional shower, a medical check or to have the cell quickly mopped.

“[the only time] we left for showers," Ahmed Baqer, a former inmate at the jail, said.

According to Louisiana Minimum Jail Standards, inmates must be provided with “some form of indoor recreational activity on a daily basis.” Those same guidelines also state inmates “shall have access to a shower on a daily basis.”

"That doesn’t happen in our facility,“ Capt. Lee said.

Lee said inmates at St. Tammany Parish are able to shower three times a week and as needed.

Our previous investigation into the facility showed St. Tammany Parish keeps inmates in the holding cells for more than two weeks and it has been going on for almost a decade, even though the state’s minimum jail standards state inmates must be moved to an appropriate housing area in 48 hours.

“I would say it’s a problem throughout the entire correctional facility throughout the country... not just in St. Tammany,” Capt. Lee said.

FOX 8 surveyed other area departments on their practices and found they treat inmates differently.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office said they have a holding area and are processed and moved to other cells within hours.

In Jefferson Parish, they move inmates to a section with a shower, phone and beds after 24 hours.

St. Charles Parish moves inmates within 72 hours, but in an e-mail the sheriff’s office said many of their holding cells have beds, unlike the setup in St. Tammany Parish.

St. Bernard Parish said inmates in their parish only remain in holding cells for three hours.

“It’s clearly not legal or constitutional for the parish to house such a high number of detainees in a small space over a long period of time,” Katie Schwartzman, the legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said.

St. Tammany Parish has 1,030 available beds, nearly the same amount as Jefferson Parish (1,185) and Orleans Parish (1,438).

“The jail is not too small, that’s not the problem,” Schwartzman said. “They have enough jail beds. It’s a question of how they’re using those beds.”

Even though Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany have similar jail populations, crime in these parishes is different.

According to 2017 state records, Orleans Parish had approximately 12,000 cases of larceny theft, compared to approximately 7,900 in Jefferson Parish and 1,200 in St. Tammany Parish. But St. Tammany Parish is the only one that says it is forced to keep non-violent offenders in holding cells for weeks.

“I think it’s important to remember what a jail is. Jails are short-term holding facilities for people who are arrested, who are presumed innocent,” Schwartzman said. “Any one of us could land in jail for a traffic citation for a low-level offense. It’s not like this is a long-term prison where you have people convicted of serious crimes."

However, FOX 8 has showed that the jail is acting as a prison too, housing offenders on behalf of the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“The problem seems to be one of process and who they are choosing to house in the beds that they already have,” Schwartzman said.

“There are several hundred people who have already been convicted of state crimes who could be sent to the department of corrections system but... they’re being held back in St. Tammany Parish.”

In the interview with Lee Zurik, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office repeatedly tried to paint a picture that the alternative to a stuffed holding cell was putting violent offenders back on the street.

“[The sheriff is] going to hold them as long as he does not put a dangerous criminal on the street,” Capt. Lee said. “We refuse to allow dangerous criminals to roam the street.”

FOX 8 has been able to further decipher the sheriff’s own records that raise more questions about that response.

In the case of Ahmed Baqer, he was brought to the jail for missing a court date on December 2, 2019. Twenty-four hours later, records show the sheriff’s office kept Baqer in holding, even though their records indicate 17 beds dedicated to pre-trial inmates were open.

“It’s disgraceful,” Tulane law professor Joel Friedman said. “We should be ashamed.”

On December 3, records show the jail had 105 open beds. Friedman said that shows it was a clear decision by jail leaders to unnecessarily break the law.

“If they have open beds and they are leaving people in holding? Why? I can only think of one reason, it’s cheaper to keep them in the holding cell than to put them in a separate room where they have access to the bathroom and the showers and all the rest," Friedman said. "It’s like a kennel for human beings. That’s what it is.”

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