By Jessica Linde
Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) may seem like a normal prison on the outside, but its unexpected truth lies on the inside. OPP had maintained a reputation based on its cruelty and lack of security toward inmates. Even before Hurricane Katrina immensely damaged the jail, OPP had already been recognized for its inhumane conditions. Just a month after Hurricane Katrina hit, Human Rights Watch said there were about 517 inmates unaccounted for. Some inmates from OPP even told reporters that the floodwaters had come up to their chest levels, while still being locked up in the cells and left to fend for themselves. OPP continued to have civil rights concerns.
In 2013, inmates were represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center in a civil rights lawsuit that led to a federal consent decree. Katie Schwartzmann, Co-Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s office in New Orleans, was the lead attorney on the lawsuit that led to the federal consent decree. It outlines steps that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman must take to ensure prisoner safety and adequate staffing at OPP. “I represent the people in OPP that acquired the consent decree. The people that filed the lawsuit against OPP filed it in regard for not only themselves, but also for the future inmates at OPP. It wasn’t a damages lawsuit,” Schwartzmann stated.
The consent decree was acquired a year and a half ago, but Schwartzmann still said, “Unfortunately, the cases dealing with inmates at OPP are extremely consistent.”
Glend Ford, a former inmate, spent twenty-one months in OPP and can attest to the inhumane conditions. The day Glend was released from OPP, he left with a permanent scar in his life. After recently sharing his experiences as an inmate at OPP, Ford stated, “The conditions are horrible. For one, no one told us about the other inmates who had been diagnosed with HIV and they put those with HIV with all the rest of us, so anyone with an open wound was put at risk.”
Ford, being a type 1 diabetic, needed up to four shots of insulin a day. He expressed how he got so sick at one point from not getting the shots necessary, that he had a seizure. Still, the OPP staff refused to take him to the hospital, while he continued to see blood in his urine.
“I remember one inmate with sickle cell. He was so sick that we had to let the guards know. They dragged him out by his feet into the hallway. We could all hear his moans and cries,” Glend said in disgust.
Glend described how guards would get up and leave the inmates alone without security for up to an hour or more. This was when most of the fights and rapes would take place. Ford revealed, “The guards gave themselves a thirty-second to five-minute rule to stop fights no matter how bloody it got. During my incarceration, there were six deaths, two of which I knew one hundred percent was the result of a fight.”
Ford’s story has a happy ending, but most of these terrifying stories about OPP inmate abuse, don’t have fairy-tale endings. Glend concluded, “I have found my own way to cope, but most importantly, I have my daughter who keeps me going. Just remember that everything the Sheriff denied about OPP is actually true.”
Back in October of 2005, Sheriff Gusman responded to reports by inmates at OPP by saying, “They’re in jail, man. They lie.” Fast forward to April of 2015, when Sheriff Gusman refused to release about 1,200 reports documenting problematic incidents at OPP. On September 14, 2015, Gusman brought the first group of inmates to the new $145 million OPP jail. By reducing the population of inmates in the new OPP from the oversized population of the old OPP, it is safe to say that some conditions have improved, but not all. Proof of the Sheriff’s past attitude toward inmates and his withholding of documentation is why inmates like Ford distrust the Sheriff.
Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), founded by Norris Henderson, is a New Orleans based organization dedicated to building the political power of people severely impacted by the criminal justice system. It is run by Formerly Incarcerated Persons (FIPs) in partnership with allies who are dedicated to also transforming the city’s criminal justice system. Bruce Reilly, the incoming Deputy Director of VOTE, spoke about how he first met Norris Henderson back in 2008 in Albuquerque, New Mexico while talking about a boxing match. “Norris and I shared a similar analysis of the criminal justice system,” Reilly shared. Similar to that of Katie Schwartzmann’s, his opening statement about OPP was, “Most of the stories we hear are very consistent.”
Reilly, an FIP himself, stresses how New Orleans has double the second highest rate of incarceration in the world. “It would be like Michael Jordan getting 32 a game. And the number two scorer gets 16,” he said. With this high of an incarceration rate, Reilly states, “Tending to our jail is always on our agenda as it should be for all the members of the New Orleans community.”
It is important to realize that OPP isn’t the only jail where inmate abuse has been known to occur. As Bruce Reilly said in one short phrase, “A cage is a cage. The problem is universal.” Nonetheless, OPP does happen to be one of the jails where the most inmate abuse has occurred. Based on reporting in Mother Jones magazine, OPP is ranked one of the ten worst prisons in America.
“I consider myself lucky,” Reilly confesses. “During my incarceration, I was definiately roughed up by guards, but I still have my eye. Unfortunately, I do know the guy who lost his eye.” While reminiscing on his own jail experiences, Bruce revealed more about the guy with one eye. “It’s different than just a tragedy. It’s scary. I saw one person die in jail, but the worst thing I ever witnessed was the guards being the ones to gang up on an inmate and take that inmate’s eye out.” Glend also witnessed guards abusing inmates, but instead of witnessing one death; in OPP, he witnessed six.
Bruce Reilly has dedicated his time from his own experiences with witnessing inmate abuse to helping inmates with experiences similar to that of Glend Ford’s. No one should have to know the guy that died in jail because security wasn’t present when they should’ve been. No one should have to know the six guys that died in OPP in under two years because the conditions were so horrible. “The craziest thing is feeling like no one is there to protect them,” Bruce explains, referring to the inmates at OPP.
Although the Sheriff denied it, everything is not what it seems within Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). The very first thing Glend said about OPP was, “It is far from a pleasant experience.” Glend is only one out of many both current and former OPP inmates with a story tell.
Katie Schwartzmann said, “It is our job to continue to advocate for the people in OPP.” It’s time to bring the New Orleans community together to change these conditions. The very first step is exposing the truth because everything is not what it seems within Orleans Parish Prison. One can only hope that the new jail was the first of many major steps in transforming the criminal justice system.