Repairing a Jail in Crisis

By Sarah Rain Marlar

In May of 2022, Susan Hutson became the Sheriff of Orleans Justice Center (OJC), a jail that has historically operated under abusive and unconstitutional conditions. In fact, these conditions were exposed to the public in 2013 when a 2009 video surfaced exposing illegal activities within the jail. That same year, the jail entered a consent decree, under the supervision of the justice department, which it is presently in. 

Hutson ran as a progressive, promising to transform the “care, custody, and control” of residents in OJC while maintaining total transparency. Once elected, she assembled a “transition team” of community members, organizers (some of which are formerly incarcerated), academics, and public officials to inform her progressive policies.

To improve the “care” of residents in OJC, Hutson appointed Dr. Astrid Birgden as Warden of Orleans Justice Center. Dr. Birgden hails from Australia and holds an MA in Forensic Psychology and an MA in Mental Disability. Her PhD in Forensic Psychology informs her belief that “the law will have a psychological experience on people, no one should be worse off after coming before the law.” 

Dr. Birgden’s goal is to create a “safe, secure, and humane jail. The two ways to do that is to reduce interpersonal violence (resident on resident, resident on staff, and staff use of force) and improve the social, physical, and psychological well being for residents and staff.”

To meet her first goal of “reducing interpersonal violence,” Dr. Birgden is addressing the resident grievances. There are roughly 1000 residents divided into 24 pods of 40-60 people. It would take her three hours if she were to step into every pod, so she has asked that each pod elect two representatives to advocate for the group grievances. 

“The reason why I started doing that is because we have so many grievances. Imagine a 1000 bed hotel where everyone is complaining about the room they are in and the services they are getting and it’s constant.”

Addressing the grievances is the first step in changing the culture among the staff. “A lot of grievances are about the way the staff have communicated with them. We are going to train our grievance officers in conflict resolution and mediation. The grievance officer would mediate between the complaining resident and the staff member. Both parties have to agree to mediation.”

Resolving these issues is all the more challenging considering the jail is staffed at 44%. 

Staff get trained in direct supervision. However, “Direct supervision was never operationalized when the new facility opened. They created unit managers like captains, but never went further. It should be an interdisciplinary team who get to know the residents well, understand their needs. Because it’s so understaffed, there may not even be a deputy in a pod.” Direct supervision would reduce violence within the facility.

There is a staffing crisis across the American correctional system, but it is exacerbated in New Orleans. “Our staff are lowly paid [less than $16 an hour]. We are competing with another parish that pays more. It’s very complex work they have to do,” says Dr. Birgden. 

On December First, Sheriff Hutson raised the pay of 382 out of 409 deputies by $2. This is the first real change she has made towards addressing the staffing shortage. Sheriff Hutson hopes this pay raise will help attract and retain more staff. However, until staffing increases the folks inside will continue to suffer the consequences.

“The jail is more understaffed than under Gusman’s leadership,” says Montrell Carmouche, manager of the community bail fund at Operation Restoration. 

Montrell Carmouche was released from federal prison four years ago after serving a 19 year sentence. They visit the jail on almost a daily basis to post bail for those who can’t afford to do so themselves. 

“People speak to the differences between the experience during Sheriff Gusman and Sheriff Hutson.It creates a threat to security around the safety of the individuals that are being housed there. Medical staff, there’s a shortage, the deputies, the processing where folks are being arrested, they have to stay longer, we are seeing discharges taking longer because of the shortage.”

Montrell was on Sheriff Hutson’s transition committee and helped design Hutson’s first and second quarter deliverables. However, “Most promises that have been made in the transition plan have not taken place yet.”

Sheriff Hutson was supposed to eliminate the $30 processing fee that her office charges per count.

“Those fees still happen. In the past year we spent over $19,000 in cash bail fees. That could have been spent to support communities and release in other ways. The sheriff promised she would do away with those fees, but that hasn’t happened yet,” says Montrell. 

Additionally, Montrell feels that the Sheriff’s office has not been very helpful as it relates to supporting women with education access. The Sheriff’s office has not allowed formerly incarcerated individuals from Operation Restoration to teach classes and tutor residents inside the facility. 

“The Travis Hill school is only for men. There is no access to education for the women inside OJC. [Since Covid] all we have had is constant conversations with the sheriff about getting in to offer education classes for the women inside. We like to start classes with them while they are in OJC, so once they are released they come to Operation Restoration and continue to take these classes to follow up with their GED”.

Montrell emphasizes that Re-entry support goes hand and hand with education. 

“Education is the one thing in life that no one can take away from you. Education changed my life. It was the education I received while incarcerated that stayed on my path to re-entry when I was released”.

The sheriff’s resistance to allowing incarcerated individuals to help with education seems to contradict the warden’s goal to improve the physical, social, and psychological well being of residents with civilian run programs and tablets. 

“The previous administration severely neglected programmatic issues.” There have been very few civilian staff delivering programs. Dr. Birgden is working on arranging more books, religious groups, artist groups, and educators to come into the facility. “Some residents are spending years here just with nothing to do”. 

Operation Restoration hasn’t had an opportunity to speak with Sheriff Hutson about why she is limiting the access of formerly incarcerated individuals in the jail. Since taking office, Montrell feels that her transparency has actually decreased, despite her campaign promise “to engage the community and serve as a sheriff who reflected and advocated for their values.”

“There are a lot of buffers in front of her. You don’t get the same contact you had prior to the election. Prior to the election she was available, she was everywhere, you could talk to her about ideas. Things affect the community, but the community doesn’t have an opportunity to address it.”

Dr. Birgden wants to have a fully staffed case management system and more reentry programs. Orleans Justice Center is a remand center. So, the residents of the facility are waiting for a court date and have not yet been convicted of a crime. Therefore, it is essential to connect them with case management services because 83% of people return to OJC after release. 

Case management is the “tram tracks that everything runs on. People walk through the door, get assessed for their needs (accommodation, employment, physical needs). When they exit we determine what needs are met, then we target the program.” 

Sheriff Hutson has been struggling to fill the case management positions. Montrell wants the Sheriff’s office to work with community organizations to bridge this gap.

“Even if you don’t have the funding within the facility to hire case managers, we have community organizations with case managers, so if you allow them inside, this is a resource that can happen. It’s about working with the community.”

Montrell emphasizes that it is essential to begin working on re-entry prior to release because “re-entry is a life or death situation for some people. A lot of people get released and go straight out of jail to sleep under the bridge.”

“If they had community organizations that were able to go in and work with the case managers as well, they could create plans of care and release plans to connect them to short term housing or emergency housing.”

Although community members who supported Hutson during her campaign are frustrated that she has not done as much as she promised, her progressive philosophy remains the same. 

“Just because you are incarcerated does not mean you lose your human rights,” says Dr. Birgden. “In terms of human rights, we have a duty to meet your human rights. How can we meet your physical, social, and psychological needs? In terms of improving your quality of life and that will have an impact on the likelihood of you reoffending.”/.

Montrell recognizes that “The problem that we have in the city of New Orleans is way bigger than Sheriff Hutson. For me, it’s about poverty, the lack of resources that are available to communities. If you ever watch jungle movies, people in the jungle are trying to survive, and they start to act like animals. I feel like that’s what’s happening in the world today. People are committing survival crimes”

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