By Jillian Kramer | | June 14, 2022

Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson, who said this week that a critical staffing shortage played a role in the weekend deaths of two men held at the Orleans Justice Center, would not provide information Tuesday on jail staffing levels, saying it could pose a new security risk.

In an interview just two days after announcing she would meet jail staffing needs by pulling deputies from Criminal District Court and other posts in New Orleans, Hutson also would not say whether deputies were physically present in the jail pods when a fatal fight erupted Friday and a man leaped to his death Sunday.

How well staffed the taxpayer-funded jail was at the time of the incidents — as well as if deputies were present in their assigned posts — could prove crucial in determining whether the deaths could have been prevented.

A staffing crisis

After the deaths, Hutson pointed to “a critical staffing shortage that has persisted for months” inside the Sheriff’s Office. A statement released by her office late Sunday suggested Hutson was forced to take swift action by pulling deputies from their posts providing security in court and other internal operations.

But by Tuesday, the deputies were back at the court. It remained unclear how many had been reassigned, even temporarily, to the jail. Hutson said the deputies had been called to the facility, in part, to conduct a physical headcount so the leadership team could assess its staffing levels.

Asked in an interview for the number of deputies who staffed the jail both before and after her order, Hutson said she didn’t have the tallies in front of her — and that releasing the number of deputies in the jail at any given time could be a security risk. She said that her legal advisors would need to weigh in.

“I cannot get into that,” she said, while promising to release that information, as well as videos of the incidents, after an internal investigation into the deaths is complete. “We are going to tell on both sides what went right and what went wrong.”

She could not provide a date for when the investigation would wrap up, or when a report would be released.

On Tuesday night, Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Timothy David Ray said the staffing numbers would not be released.

“The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office does not disclose sensitive information about deputy deployment,” he wrote in a statement. “The safety of all those under our care, including our deputies themselves, is our top priority.”

He added that Hutson would release a staffing plan within the next two weeks.

A test of leadership

The jail deaths come just six weeks after Hutson took office and mark the first public test of her leadership. The Sheriff’s Office has provided scant details on what occurred over the weekend, leaving critics to question Hutson’s response.

“Tell me how it is a security risk to provide the numbers,” asked Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, “when she has already reported a staffing deficiency?”

The Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office on Tuesday released names of the two men who died: Philip Soublet Jr., 31, died of blunt force injuries after a Friday night physical altercation that left two other inmates seriously injured and a fourth inmate with minor trauma. On Sunday, Chad Neyland, 46, leapt over a second-story mezzanine railing and broke his spine, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

The Sheriff’s Office, along with New Orleans police, are investigating the incidents, Hutson said. Soublet’s death has been classified as a homicide. No charges have been brought in the killing.

Hutson is due to appear Wednesday in front of the New Orleans City Council, where she and other leaders of the city’s criminal justice system are expected to provide department updates. It’s all but certain that council members will be poised to discuss the jail’s staffing issues.

A history of violence

The jail and the Sheriff’s Office were placed under a federal consent decree nine years ago that was meant to reform a facility plagued by reports of violence and a bevy of other problems.

The monitors issue biannual reports on the office’s progress toward compliance. In a report released in October, they echoed a sentiment they’ve expressed for years, noting that “the level of staffing is insufficient to adequately supervise inmates and allow for the safe operation of the facility.”

At a City Council budget hearing in November, former Sheriff Marlin Gusman reported that the office had 681 active employees, including 610 assigned to its criminal division.

His report did not break down how many deputies were assigned to the Orleans Justice Center.

Just a month before, Gusman said the Sheriff’s Office had about 100 vacancies. In 2017, the monitors said 353 staff members were required at the jail, but only 280 were allotted there. More recent numbers were not available.

The reports also illuminate another persistent problem: Even when the jail has been sufficiently staffed, deputies “almost daily” leave their posts in pods, the monitors have recently written.

In an October report, they wrote: “Many of the inmate-on-inmate assaults occur because staff allow inmates out of their cells who are to be kept separate from each other [or] leave inmates out of their cells unsupervised.”