In New Orleans, the U.S. Justice Department is intervening in a class-action lawsuit filed over conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison. The department's filing cites, among other things, “inadequate medical, mental health care and suicide prevention practices” and failures of the staff “to protect prisoners from physical and sexual violence.”
If that rings a bell, it should. Oklahoma County officials have faced almost identical complaints from the Justice Department over conditions at our county jail. A 2008 review by the federal agency outlined concerns ranging from “unconscionable violence” between inmates but also between guards and inmates, to unsanitary conditions and poor record keeping.
Investigators listed five dozen deficiencies that had to be addressed if the county wanted to avoid a federal takeover. Most of those have since been dealt with. Indeed last month the jail was accredited for the first time by the American Correctional Association, which Sheriff John Whetsel said validated an improvement plan put in place after the DOJ report was issued.
The New Orleans case differs from what transpired here in that the DOJ is following up on a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. One similarity between events here and in the Big Easy is that the Justice Department carries an equally big stick — if New Orleans officials don't make significant changes, the federal government will do it for them.
Whetsel and other county officials say structural problems with the jail make it impossible to address four of the 60 concerns outlined by the DOJ. For example, the jail wasn't designed with a medical wing. In March, the DOJ told county officials it remains concerned about the jail's medical and mental health treatment programs.
County commissioners are exploring building a new jail and paying for it with a sales tax that would require voter approval. Not an ideal scenario, but likely unavoidable in the long term.