It is a scene you might expect to find in a Las Vegas hotel room. Dozens of shirtless men chugging Budweiser cans, snorting cocaine off Bibles, gambling recklessly on the floor, and even wielding a gun.
The reality is less pleasant. Welcome to the Orleans Parish Prison. Situated in New Orleans’ third ward, the detention facility has garnered national attention in the wake of a video released on Wednesday. Inside a filthy cell, some inmates rashly display loaded weapons, while others inject heroin. Extracted from a prisoner’s stolen cell phone, its contents are indeed shocking.
The video, filmed in 2009, was revealed as part of a class-action lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the U.S. Department of Justice against Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Regardless of the verdict, the prison is unlikely to find any relief, as financial constraints have already pushed the city to its budgetary limits. The time has come for a penal overhaul.
Orleans Parish Prison first gained notoriety in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when 6,500 prisoners were abandoned, and left to weather the storm on their own. “The sheriff declared that the prisoners would remain 'where they belong' despite the mayor's decision to declare the city's first-ever mandatory evacuation,” the ACLU later reported. “OPP even accepted prisoners, including juveniles as young as 10, from other facilities to ride out the storm.”
For days, prisoners went without food or water. Many were left “standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests” as prison guards fled the jail, leaving inmates locked in their cells.
In the two years following Katrina, the metropolitan population of Orleans Parish decreased from an all time high of 461,000 to a mere 208,000. In an equally abrupt shift, the population nearly regained the discrepancy between 2007 and 2009.
This rapid re-assimilation came too quickly for the downtown city jail, which lost nearly 70% of its carrying capacity as a result of storm damages. The cost of rebuilding the prison and restoring civility has been hampered further by the city’s budget, also suffering shortfalls nearly a decade after Katrina.
As a result, conditions have deteriorated to chaos over the last several years. In the last eight months, three inmates have died and dozens have escaped. Trash is left in the open and every cell is filled past capacity.
There have been attempts to mend the facility, but the city’s budget squeeze will likely prevent any serious improvements. In the absence of funds, NOLA may be forced to slacken incarceration standards, which could be a blessing in disguise.
The American prison system holds nearly a quarter of the world’s inmates. At an annual cost of over $30,000/per prisoner, reductions in sentence lengths and liberalized drug laws would be a good first step towards penal sustainability.