New Orleans jail inmates ‘shown with drugs and guns’

A LONG-RUNNING dispute over New Orleans’ “dysfunctional” prison system deepened yesterday following the emergence of video footage showing inmates with loaded guns, injecting heroin, snorting cocaine and drinking beer in their cells.

“This ain’t Girls Gone Wild. This [is] New Orleans Parish Prison Gone Wild,” jokes the unseen cameraman in the commentary to the footage, which also shows an inmate carousing in the Bourbon Street party district after either escaping or being turned loose for the evening.

“Y’all know I’m supposed to be in jail right now,” the inmate says as he poses outside a strip club and even greets unsuspecting police officers.

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The prison footage was shot in a wing called the House of Detention in 2009 by an inmate using a smuggled mobile phone, but was confiscated and locked away for four years in the office of the city’s sheriff, Marlin Gusman. It was obtained and produced in US district court by lawyers pressing for the prison system to be taken out of the sheriff’s hands and placed in receivership.

The mayor, Mitch Landrieu, who has committed millions of dollars to overhauling the police force following years of corruption scandals, has argued that he cannot also afford to also plough money into reforming a prison system that Mr Gusman has proved himself incapable of running effectively.

“The videotape is outrageous. I have never seen anything like it,” said Mr Landrieu. “How can we make our city safe when prisoners are coming and going from jail as they please, walking freely on the streets and then returning to jail with heroin, cocaine and loaded weapons?”

He added: “In light of this disturbing evidence, we again request the [United States] department of justice join us in immediately putting a federal receiver in place to manage the jail. It is now clearer than ever that the Orleans parish sheriff’s office is not keeping the prison secure and our city safe … I cannot in good conscience cut vital services or raise taxes to put even more money into an office where waste, fraud and abuse run rampant.”

The prison, dubbed “one of the most dangerous and mismanaged jails in the country” by the American Civil Liberties Union, is a notoriously run-down facility that flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Despite a mandatory evacuation order from Ray Nagin, the mayor at the time, the sheriff’s office ruled that the 6,500 inmates would be kept “where they belong” – but many prison guards fled, abandoning them to chest-high, sewage-tainted floodwaters, a power blackout, and days without food or drinking water.

In December, Mr Gusman – who has for years rebuffed criticism that he has mismanaged the system – closed down the prison after he was served with a class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights group.

The row over who should fund its recovery has pitted him against a mayor noted for his reformist civic agenda but in charge of a budget that he says is stretched to its limit. Mr Gusman has swung between denying that the prison was beset by violence, lawlessness, abuses by guards, inadequate medical provision and unconstitutional conditions, and blaming the city for failing to give it adequate funding.

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“The House of Detention is a city-owned building in a state of disrepair and abhorrent lack of proper security measures. I closed the House of Detention last year because of these problems,” he stated.

Manuel Romero, a prisons expert for the department of justice, told the hearing in district court that 32 prisoners had suffered stab wounds at the jail in the last year and there were 698 assaults on inmates. The videos, he said, proved a “total lack of a security programme”.

“The level of contraband was outrageous, particularly with the firearms and drugs and the money and the beer. From a security standpoint, it was shocking,” he testified.