Zurik: Lawsuit filed over cramped St. Tammany holding cells, lawyers concerned for social distancing amid COVID-19

Updated: Mar. 23, 2020 at 11:55 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A lawsuit has been filed against the St. Tammany Jail and their practice of keeping inmates in crammed holding cells for days, a practice FOX 8 first exposed in a Lee Zurik Investigation as being against Louisiana’s very own minimum jail standards.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana on Sunday, is a class action suit on behalf of three former inmates of the jail, one of which was featured in our investigation into the jail. The suit lists St. Tammany Parish Government, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, current Sheriff Randy Smith, former Sheriff Jack Strain, and two jail wardens.

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 suit describes the cramped conditions which routinely saw between 15-30 inmates in a cell that measures twenty feet long and ten feet wide with inmates sleeping on concrete floors. Lawyers for the three former inmates said the conditions in the jail were numerous violations guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

“We are bringing a legal force down to Louisiana to make sure we put an end to what’s going on there,” Devon M. Jacob, a civil rights attorney on the suit, said. Jacob and attorneys with the Chicago law firm Romanucci & Blandin make up the team filing the suit in federal court in New Orleans.

Jacob said the situation in St. Tammany Parish highlights a larger concern at this time with inmates likely packed in holding cells at a time when federal, state and local officials are urging people to practice social distancing to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19.

“What’s really disconcerting is the fact that we have a virus currently and these and these guards, these law enforcement leaders, don’t realize how selfish they’re being because not only are they mistreating inmates both in the past and the present but they are hurting and threatening their families and the general community,” Jacob said. “These are pre-trial detainees who are not to be in the jail very long and if you put people in that environment, viruses are going to spread very fast.

“These guards are risking a serious urgency for the community for cramming people into horrible conditions and then going home to their families and release them into the public,” Jacob said.

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.

Among the three listed plaintiffs is Ahmed Baqer, who first spoke about the conditions inside the jail to FOX 8′s Lee Zurik.

“We’re humans you know, we should be treated like humans even though we may have done something wrong,” Baqer said in a February interview. “Half of us are in there for things that are so small, petty that doesn’t mean we should be treated like animals.”

FOX 8′s investigation into the conditions at the jail found inmates like Baqer remained in holding cells even though the jail’s own records indicated they had open empty cells with beds.

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)

Sheriff Randy Smith declined to do an on-camera interview in response to the investigation. Now former inmates are expecting to see him in court.

They are seeking not only damages but a change in department policy of keeping inmates locked up in the small concrete room for weeks, a practice that FOX 8 found has been going on for at least a decade.

“Clearly, St. Tammany Parish didn’t have any interest in changing their policies themselves even after being warned by the DOJ [Department of Justice] so we’re going to ask the federal court to impose policy changes on the entity,” Jacob said.

Late Monday morning, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office released a statement on the suit being filed, saying: “It is not uncommon for litigation to follow after a story is aired. There have been multiple lawsuits filed in the past, which have resulted in all claims being dismissed with prejudice. The STPSO is confident this alleged suit will have the same outcome once all the facts are revealed in the appropriate legal setting.”

Monday afternoon the sheriff’s office followed up by reporting the holding cell currently has four inmates. They said following our story they canceled a contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, freeing up an additional 40-man-dorm and allowing them to move inmates out of the holding cells.

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