A federal court order issued last week portrays unfathomable conditions at a New Orleans prison that a sheriff has for years defended against charges of mismanagement. The judge’s ruling portrays in gory detail the gang rape, sexual misconduct, chaos, and total medical neglect that have resulted from mismanagement and abysmal supervision.
In his 104-page order, U.S. District Court Lance Africk approved a consent decree that will aim to curb a prison crisis that has been festering since at least 1970, when a judge held that conditions at the prison would “shock the conscience.” Among the most shocking findings from the latest court order:
1. In one of several vicious rapes, 10-14 inmates forced a tied-up fellow inmate to dance in a thong while performing sexually invasive acts on him. The hours-long incident, an example of the “extraordinarily high level of rapes and sexual assaults” overall, is described in harrowing detail [WARNING: graphic content follows]:
One night, … E.S. was attacked by a group of 10-14 inmates. … After they hog-tied E.S. with the fabric, they sexually assaulted him. E.S. testified that one inmate “stuck his finger into my anal area,” another inmate “stuck a toothbrush into my anal area,” and another inmate“ actually stuck his tongue in my anal area.” … At some point, the assailants picked up E.S. and carried him to a new location at the back of the dormitory, where they released him from the hog-tied position and tied him to a post, with his back to the post. At this point, four to six inmates began punching him repeatedly. … The attackers threw hot water and possibly urine on E.S., and beat him so severely with a mop stick that the skin was ripped from his back and buttocks. At some point during this phase of the attack, a guard performed a routine check, but he did not walk far enough down the hall to notice E.S., naked, bound, and beaten. E.S. reported that he did not cry out because he was certain that he would be killed if he did so.
In the final phase of the attack, the inmates fashioned “some type of thong, like a woman’s thong” from strips of uniform fabric. They forced E.S. to put it on and, E.S. testified, in an attempt to be “comical” or to“ embarrass me or something in front of the dormitory… they made me dance. … E.S reported that “90% of the crowd had knives in their hands visible.”
Oversight of security was so limited that reports of a high-ranking guard who “regularly observed a female [inmate] showering and escorted her to a private office after hours for ‘prolonged periods of time’” went unaddressed, even though two staff members and several inmates confirmed witnessing the accounts.
2. Video captured rogue inmates gambling, shooting up heroin, and “brandishing a loaded gun” behind bars, while others walked out of the prison and “went cavorting on Bourbon Street.” The court explains:
These videos appear to have been filmed at the now-closed House of Detention (“HOD”), in part to highlight the absence of supervision and the poor environmental conditions. Whatever the history behind the videos, inmates were able to blatantly engage in criminal conduct, which they literally announced was occurring, without showing any concern for staff intervention. There was no suggestion that the staff members responsible for supervising these inmates were ever identified, much less disciplined. The conduct in the video may have occurred several years ago, but the policies, practices, and culture that enabled the outrageous conduct remain relevant.
3. Known suicidal inmates were placed in isolation and treatment was neglected. Once there, one man hung himself with his t-shirt. Overall, mental health treatment is grossly inadequate. There is just one psychiatrist and social worker for some 2,500 inmates, in spite of a mental illness epidemic in prisons. “Inmates, including inmates on suicide watch, have easy access to shards of broken tile, which may be ingested, thrown, or used as a weapon,” the court noted.
4. Environmental hazards include sewage seeping into cells where inmates eat, feces on the walls, and clouds of gnats that yield skin problems. These hazards and strong smells of urine and feces were particularly acute in mental health units, where inmates were smearing feces on the walls and food was left for days.
5. Staff members are known to take out “hits on inmates, either by ordering other inmates to arrange a hit or sometimes by “placing the inmate in an area where known enemies make violence likely.”
As shocking as these conditions seem, this is far from the only prison with this sort of inhumane conditions. Overcrowded prisons around the country struggle to meet basic staffing needs, which led the U.S. Supreme Court to find in 2010 that California’s prison health care was so deficient that it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Another just-filed lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that a Mississippi private prison not only allows rampant rape, stabbings, and beatings, but that staff coerce prisoners to have sex in exchange for food and phone privileges.