City Council questions Orleans sheriff on jail safety, transparency concerns

Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 7:50 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -- Sheriff Susan Hutson said at least six people will be charged with offenses related to the protest about conditions inside the Orleans Justice Center jail over the weekend.

The morning after a group of inmates that had barricaded themselves for three days to protest conditions inside a high-security pod were forcibly removed by a Department of Corrections security team, the first-year sheriff offered explanations for the latest jail unrest to the Criminal Justice Committee of the New Orleans City Council.

Council members questioned Hutson about her control of the facility, and her office’s shortcomings regarding transparency and communication about violence and disruptions within it.

“Communication needs to improve,” said Council president Helena Moreno. “Transparency needs to improve. Security needs to improve. Because what’s happening within the jail can obviously impact us outside in the community, as well.”

Moreno called the most recent incident “troubling.”

Hutson said the disruption began Friday, when “residents” of the jail’s high-security pod reacted angrily to a lockdown.

Hutson said a deputy left the pod to call for backup, and in the time away the inmates barricaded themselves inside, fashioned weapons from broken broomsticks, and flooded the floor with soapy water.

After three days of fruitless negotiations -- and trapped inmates pleading for food and help through a screened jail window -- Hutson finally asked the state Department of Corrections for a team to break the barricade and restore order.

She said the effort took about 50 corrections officers and deputies, only about 20 of whom were from the OPSO. She said at least five inmates were injured and a sixth went to the hospital for non-injury medical treatment.

Hutson blamed problems that have flared inside the jail during her first 100 days in office -- which include the deaths of two inmates -- on her staff being undermanned, underpaid, and working in a complex work environment. She asked the council for additional funding for more resources.

Moreno asked the sheriff to honor her campaign promise of being transparent and open with information to the Council and to the public through the news media.

“The more transparent you can be with what’s happening within the jail, as far as advising the council as to what’s happening, and also the public through the media outlets, I think is going to be very helpful to you,” Moreno told Hutson.

Moreno also expressed concern that Hutson and her communications team, since taking office 3 1/2 months ago, has deliberately excluded Fox 8 from statements, information and press releases it has sent to other news outlets in New Orleans. Hutson’s office also has denied interview requests and failed to respond to several public records requests from Fox 8.

“I think the other piece, too, is getting information to all media outlets, being fair with news releases,” Moreno told Hutson. “That when they go out, that no one is excluded.”

Hutson responded, “Yeah, I have no issues with that.”

But after the committee meeting, a reporter asked Hutson if she would start communicating with Fox 8.

“We’re not good,” Hutson replied. “No conversations now.”

Hutson’s communications director, Timothy David Ray, this year was stripped of his license to practice law following a series of Lee Zurik investigations into questionable spending of public funds after losing a re-election bid to serve as clerk of First City Court.

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Zurik: Formal charges filed against former court clerk following FOX 8 Investigation

Zurik: Recipient of questionable court funds drops off check, cash at courthouse

Hutson’s office escorted camera crews from other New Orleans news stations into the jail Monday, allowing them to photograph in areas approved by the OPSO. Fox 8, which aired inmates’ pleas for food and help on Sunday, again was excluded.

Later Monday night, Hutson made her first public post since taking office May 2 on her agency’s Facebook page. In a lengthy statement that she also read as a video message, Hutson pledged again to “be transparent and accountable about what is going on.”

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