New Orleans -- The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman Monday, alleging the sheriff's mismanagement of Orleans Parish Prison has created inhumane conditions there.
For years, The Southern Poverty Law Center has received complaints about violence inside Orleans Parish Prison. But attorney Katie Schwartzmann says they weren't alone. "Sheriff Gusman has known about these conditions for years and years. Before Katrina and after Katrina. People have continued to lose their lives in the facility," Schwartzmann said.
Schwartzmann tells us Gusman has done nothing to improve things at the jail, so she's hoping the filing of a class action lawsuit will force him to do so. "The lawsuit directly asks for changes in the sheriff's policies, specifically as it goes to protecting prisoners. We know that there are problems with staffing, we know there are problems with classification, we know that there are problems with the facility being full of knives," Schwartzmann explained.
Mental health services inside the prison also desperately need to be reformed, according to Schwartzmann. In fact, she says people with mental illness are often left nearly naked in overcrowded cells that reek of human waste.
The lawsuit is filed on behalf of people imprisoned at OPP, as well as former inmates, and includes declarations of their experiences.
Inmate Mark Walker, who is legally blind, said, "I have been raped, beat up by guards, jumped by prisoners, had my stuff stolen, and denied access to mental health care. Nobody, especially those of us with a physical or mental disability are safe here."
Inmate Steven Dominick said, "Guards do nothing to prevent violence. In fact they often instigate it. I have had to apply pressure to knife wounds and called family members to call 911 since guards refuse to help."
As work is underway on a new jail, prison reform advocates say it's imperative that Gusman clean up the facility that he's running now, before he's given a much larger responsibility.
Norris Henderson with the Prison Reform Coalition said, "If this was any other business that was being operated we would be asking for more accountability."
FOX 8 reached out to Sheriff Gusman for comment on the lawsuit, and late Monday we received this statement from the sheriff's public relations representatives, the Ehrhardt Group:
"The Southern Poverty Law Center has not served the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office with the lawsuit filed earlier today. The OPSO has addressed the SPLC's specific allegations in recent days, and we will not speculate about what is contained in their complaint.
"The deputies and staff of the OPSO are working daily to address the care, custody and control of the inmates in our custody.
"At the same time, we are engaged in a tireless effort to maintain temporary jail facilities to provide the services needed for the inmates in our custody, including a number of education and training programs that serve as alternatives to jail. We are also engaged in a number of programs designed to assist inmates to earn their GED, receive training for a job once they return to their community, offer health care assistance and treatment for substance abuse problems that inmates bring with them into our custody. These are all model programs within the state of Louisiana.
"The OPSO has consistently stated that we have a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual activity and assault in our facilities. The OPSO investigates every incident and allegation of sexual assault and violent behavior immediately and thoroughly. Where warranted, the OPSO vigorously pursues prosecution of any individuals who violate these policies.
"Our health care within the jail system is recognized for the work it does every day. The Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office is one of only three correctional facilities in Louisiana accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), which is dedicated to improving the quality of correctional health services and helping correctional facilities provide effective and efficient care. The standards of the NCCHC are recommended requirements for the proper management of a correctional health services delivery system. These standards help correctional facilities improve the health of their inmates and the communities to which they return, increase the efficiency of their health services delivery, strengthen their organizational effectiveness, and reduce their risk of adverse patient outcomes.