- Associated Press - Monday, March 20, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Inmate advocates say a recent disturbance at the long-troubled New Orleans jail appears to have been far worse than jail officials initially let on - including inmates freeing other inmates from cells, fights among inmates, at least one fire and two serious inmate injuries.

In weekend press releases, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office said about a dozen inmates barricaded themselves in an area of the jail Friday night in an incident that lasted about an hour. It happened “while a deputy on duty was temporarily out of the housing units,” one release said.

“That is inconsistent with everything we have learned of the situation,” attorney Emily Washington said in a letter, dated Sunday, to Gary Maynard. Maynard was appointed with federal court approval last year to run the jail and oversee extensive court-ordered reforms.

Rather than an hour-long disturbance, Washington’s letter says, there was a series of incidents that began Friday afternoon on one tier of the jail. They included a prisoner threatening to jump from a mezzanine of the tier, a prisoner obtaining a sheriff’s office-issued radio, prisoners using computerized door controls to free other prisoners, fights, at least one fire and the use of force including striking of inmates with batons.

“It is our understanding that what has been reported as a deputy being ‘temporarily out of the housing unit’ was in fact a complete lack of adequate or mandated supervision on the tier over the course of several hours,” wrote Washington, a lawyer for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.

The sheriff’s office declined to comment Monday, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Friday’s Sheriff’s Office news release said deputies entered the area where inmates were barricaded through a fire exit Friday night. It said a food cart was knocked over and hit an inmate in the head. The release said the inmate was evaluated at a medical clinic. Four other inmates were also treated for minor injuries.

Washington said the MacArthur Center’s information is that at least two prisoners were taken to hospitals.

She also wrote that the reported incidents coincide with a stretch of time Friday afternoon when MacArthur investigators were told they couldn’t see their jail clients because deputies were responding to incidents and the jail was on lockdown.

Washington noted that the jail, which opened in September 2015 is about half empty, with New Orleans prisoners being held in other jurisdictions. That was done so the jail could replenish and train staff.

Maynard was appointed “compliance director” at the jail last year as MacArthur lawyers, New Orleans city officials and other critics of Sheriff Marlin Gusman decried slow progress in implementing reforms in an agreement settling a lawsuit filed by inmate advocates and the U.S. Justice Department.

“The public representations surrounding this incident cause great alarm for us as representatives of the prisoners in the jail,” Washington wrote.

Her letter includes a request for video from various locations in the jail and documents including jail staff assignments.

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