Hutson pledges weekly public incident reports amid transparency concerns at Orleans jail

Published: Aug. 27, 2022 at 10:52 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson said Friday (Aug. 26) her troubling approach to transparency would improve, starting with weekly jail incident reports that will be accessible by the public.

“Change takes time -- and here at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, we are working every day to make the changes I was elected to bring to this organization,” said Hutson, who was sworn into office May 2 after defeating incumbent sheriff Marlin Gusman in a runoff election last December.

“I pledged to be transparent and accountable, and I will continue to do that while ensuring we do thorough investigations and that the information we share is accurate.”

Hutson’s remarks came in a written statement published to the sheriff’s office website and sent to Fox 8 on Friday night.

The press release offered no explanation or apology for what many have seen as a disturbing lack of transparency in the first four months of Hutson’s tenure. A federal judge, New Orleans City Council members, the Orleans Public Defenders, jail safety advocates and relatives of inmates all have decried the lack of clear and timely reporting of disruptions and violent incidents inside the Orleans Justice Center jail.

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Two inmates have died and at least five have been stabbed in Hutson’s first 17 weeks running a jail. Others blockaded a recreation room earlier this month to stage a three-day protest over jail conditions, forcing Hutson to call in a tactical team from the state Department of Corrections to quell the disturbance and regain control of the high-security pod.

Hutson’s office also has played favorites with local media, until Friday night excluding Fox 8 from nearly all press releases and statements that it has issued to other city news outlets. Fox 8 previously aired a series of Lee Zurik investigations into questionable spending of public funds by Timothy David Ray while he was clerk of First City Court. Ray now serves as Hutson’s communications director at the sheriff’s office.

But in its statement Friday night, OPSO said it was committing to a “new procedure for keeping the public informed.” It published the first of what it pledged will be weekly incident reports involving injuries, disruptions or offenses occurring inside the jail.

“While we procure new, state-of-the-art technology, we are implementing a workaround to speed up the process of collecting data and generating incident reports,” assistant sheriff Kristen Morales said in the statement. “That will allow our teams to report both major and non-major incidents to the community.”

The first such report published Friday confirmed that two inmates had stabbed each other last Wednesday. The report said neither required hospitalization, nor was any disciplinary action against them noted. Three other “non-major” incidents were reported, involving inmates fighting or attacking each other with objects including a broom and a food tray. The conditions of the injured jail “residents,” as Hutson and her staff call inmates, were not disclosed.

The statement also revealed that Dr. Astrid Birgden, whose job title is Assistant Sheriff for Jail Operations, is considered by Hutson “the warden of the Orleans Justice Center.”

According to an online biography, Dr. Birgden is an Australian forensic/clinical psychologist who “develops policy, manages projects and delivers services in corrections, human services and the courts to serious offenders.”

Birgden is a devotee of the “Good Lives Model of Offender Rehabilitation” (GLM), developed by New Zealand clinical psychologist Tony Ward, which holds at its core “the assumption that while offenders have obligations to respect other peoples’ entitlements to well-being and freedom, they are also entitled to the same considerations.” According to the GLM, “the best way to create a safer society is to assist offenders to adopt more fulfilling and socially integrated lifestyles.”

Other researchers say the GLM “has been consistently criticized for a lack of empirical evidence supporting both its key assumptions and intervention outcomes.” Nonetheless, this would appear to be the experimental approach to incarceration and behavioral modification being favored by Hutson and her staff.

Friday’s OPSO statement said that inmates from pod 2E, where the Aug. 12-14 protest about jail conditions originated, would be “taken off of lockdown and released on the same time schedules as all 24 pods” of the jail.

“I will begin weekly meetings with the two elected resident representatives from that pod to ensure grievances are heard and that they are informed about various policies here at OJC,” Birgden said in the statement. “Weekly meetings with pod representatives have proven a productive pool in planning new jail programming and ensuring their mental health and social needs are heard and met.”

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