Who represents the civil rights of the people incarcerated in New Orleans’ jail? They don’t know. Do you?
Voice of the Experienced surveyed people incarcerated at OJC about the consent decree and their experiences with mental health care in the jail.
“Who are these people? OJC is understaffed and run terribly. Why would you need another jail?”
– Community Member incarcerated 5 years at OJC, in response to our inquiry on the civil rights lawyers representing them
“No one residing at OJC has been informed of the civil rights case before 7/11/2023, when these surveys were issued. The mental health staff to resident ratio is way too large. The staff is not equipped to deal with the amount or level of mental health issues of residents. Medication services are sporadic and not on a reliable schedule.”
– Community Member incarcerated 16 months at OJC, diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Expecting to leave OJC “within a year or two.”
AUGUST 1, 2023—In the ongoing saga of the proposed $110 million dollar Orleans Justice Center (OJC) expansion, a critical question remains unanswered: who truly represents the people incarcerated in our jail?
We, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), raise strong concerns about the representation of the community most impacted – the people currently incarcerated and who could be incarcerated at OJC – by the MacArthur Justice Center (MacArthur). The 2012 federal court Consent Decree was intended to bring meaningful change to the abhorrent jail conditions in New Orleans and meet standards mandated by the United States and Louisiana constitutions. But instead, it has devolved into a labyrinth of murky intentions and questionable judgment that we believe would make mental healthcare at the jail worse.
More than a decade into the litigation, at least 100,000 people have been in that jail, held for periods ranging from a few days, to a few weeks, to a few months. We are totally surprised that MacArthur supports a $110 million panopticon jail expansion to house a few dozen people with serious mental illnesses (SMI). It is understandable for others to put weight in their opinions, as MacArthur is tasked with representing the incarcerated people inside the jail. We have heard Judge Africk, Magistrate North, and City Council give credence to what the jail’s incarcerated people want (which is rarely the case for people in jails and prisons). We hope such deference continues after reading this letter.
Our concerns have reached the point that we feel the necessity to raise them in a public forum. The fate of our jail and its population should not be directed through private court deliberations limited to pleadings by a few lawyers, but in public dialogue. This is for the people of New Orleans.
A Brief History of the Orleans Parish Prison / Orleans Justice Center Consent Decree
“I’m unsure of what that means.”
– Community Member at OJC, when asked about the “Consent Decree.”
The Consent Decree is an agreement, overseen by a federal judge, of a 2012 class-action lawsuit brought forth by a group of 10 incarcerated whistleblower plaintiffs in Orleans Parish who had the courage to speak out on the dangerous conditions and lack of mental healthcare treatment in the jail. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) originally represented these individuals. Within a year and a half, when the original lead attorney switched organizations, MacArthur replaced SPLC’s representation of them.
At the time this litigation was initiated, the jail regularly detained roughly 3,600 people. Conditions in the jail were so egregious that the federal government moved to join the plaintiffs to sue Sheriff Gusman, following an independent investigation conducted by the Department of Justice. By the end of the year, these three parties entered into a federal court Consent Decree, agreeing to work together to make the jail conditions in New Orleans constitutionally compliant (which is still a very low standard of existence).
Importantly, the Consent Decree acknowledges that the “Plaintiff” class now represented by MacArthur consists of “all individuals who are now or will be imprisoned” in the Orleans Parish Jail. This court document starkly contrasts with MacArthur’s regular claim that they solely represent the individuals currently in the jail.Continue reading Advocating for True Representation and Mental Health Justice: VOTE Opposes the Disastrous “Phase III” Expansion of OJC