The way the Justice Department tells it, conditions at the jail in Orleans Parish, La., are so bad that inmates are hurting themselves in hopes of getting transferred. Violence has spiraled “out of control” — in just the first 11 weeks of this year, there were 114 prisoner-on-prisoner fights and 12 assaults on staff — and there are no suicide-resistant cells or other necessary safeguards for those on suicide watch.

In one particularly egregious incident, a 61-year-old boxing instructor who never saw a mental health provider — even though an intake screening showed he probably should — hanged himself in a shower stall. He was able to lock the stall from the inside, and a nurse had to crawl under the door and remove the noose with a pair of scissors because the jail’s tool to cut down inmates did not work.
The Orleans Parish jail system has long been troubled: In 2013, a judge ordered widespread reforms as part of a consent decree. But the Justice Department alleges now that the sheriff is not holding up his end of the bargain, and conditions in the jail are not improving. They want a judge to take the “extraordinary” step of appointing a receiver to fully take over jail operations.

“Prisoners at the Orleans Parish Jail,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in a court filing Monday, “are in grave danger.”

In a statement, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman said the Justice Department’s filing “contains numerous inaccuracies and misleading statements,” and he looked forward to demonstrating in court he was “making substantial strides towards consent decree compliance.”
“We recognize there is more work to be done but will not allow this move by the Plaintiffs to undermine the accomplishments and sacrifices of the hard working deputies and staff at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office,” the sheriff said.

Orleans Parish recently opened a new $145 million jail, but by the Justice Department’s telling, the building did not alleviate some of the ingrained problems. In a 61-page page filing, Justice Department lawyers alleged prisoners there are “largely unsupervised,” and youthful prisoners are simply locked in punitive isolation because the jail lacks adequate housing for them.

The use of forced isolation for young people at the jail comes as states across the country have sought to reform and, in some cases, end the use of solitary confinement for young and mentally ill inmates.
President Obama announced earlier this year that he was banning solitary for juveniles in federal prisons, calling it “a measure of last resort.” He pointed to the potentially devastating psychological impact of solitary, a practice that experts say can have catastrophic effects on young people and those with mental illnesses. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has said that juveniles “are at particular risk” for suffering psychologically from time in solitary, owing to where they are in their development.

Justice Department lawyers alleged inmates in Orleans Parish are “engaging in self-harm in order to get transferred away from the harsh conditions and unacceptable level of violence.”

In the first 11 weeks of 2016, the jail recorded 50 suicide attempts, and Justice Department lawyers alleged there remain “no suicide resistant cells, inadequate supervision for suicide watch, no final suicide prevention policies, no staff suicide prevention training, no adequate mental health step down unit, and insufficient mental health leadership and treatment.” Monitors also found food was not always stored at appropriate temperatures, and a lack of cleaning in the shower areas sometimes led to standing water, according to the Justice Department’s filing.

The Justice Department wrote that the sheriff was aware of the problems but had not taken steps to fix them.

About a dozen people in local jails and state prisons die each day, according to a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics last year. This report said that in 2013, the year for which the most recent data is available, suicide remained the leading cause of death in local jails, while an illness was the typical cause in a state prison.