- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Amid renewed federal court battles over management and funding of the notoriously dangerous jail in New Orleans, authorities said Tuesday that an inmate charged with aggravated rape was found dead of an apparent suicide.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office said Ryan Miller, 24, was found Monday night in a holding cell with a telephone cord around his neck. A sheriff’s spokesman said in a news release that deputies began CPR and took Miller to a hospital. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Jail records indicate that Miller had been jailed since May 2014. He was indicted in June on the aggravated rape charge involving a 12-year-old victim. A mental competency hearing was ordered and Miller was found competent to stand trial in September.

His lawyer, Bruce Netterville, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he had sought the competency examination because he wanted to make sure his client, who struggled intellectually and had been a special education student, understood the charges against him.

Jail spokesman Phil Stelly said in an email that Miller had not been on suicide watch. He declined to answer other questions, including why the inmate was in a cell with a telephone, saying the matter was under investigation.

However, Ryan Miller’s mother, Pamela Miller, said Tuesday that detectives told her he had been placed in the holding cell so he could be observed after having threatened suicide. However, she said, she was told he had been left alone for a time and a deputy returned to find him with a cord around his neck.

Miller’s death comes amid a resurgent federal court fight between lawyers for Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs the jail, and the New Orleans city government, which funds it. While Gusman has long complained that the city fails to adequately fund the jail, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration argues that Gusman has mismanaged the facility.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved an agreement that Gusman reached with lawyers for inmates and the U.S. Justice Department over conditions at the jail, including unsanitary facilities, inmate violence and poor medical and mental health treatment.

During hearings leading up to the approval, court officials viewed an inmate-made cellphone video showing drug and alcohol use and a loaded weapon being brandished in a now-closed section of the jail complex.

Improvement has been slow, however. A monitor’s report in February said the jail remains a dangerous place, still plagued by inmates’ assaults on each other and on jail staff, attempted suicides, and allegations of sexual assault.

Last week, the city went to court to ask Africk to terminate a contract the sheriff reached for over $80 million with a health care services company, saying the price per inmate was excessive and that the city has the authority to negotiate health-provider contracts for the jail.

This week, Gusman’s lawyers sought a new court order forcing the city to provide more money to the jail, formally known as Orleans Parish Prison. A hearing is set for Thursday.

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