Instead of speaking privately face-to-face, defense lawyers and inmates held in Orleans Parish Prison must sit within earshot of a roomful of people and speak over jail telephones or yell through crude and filthy Plexiglas-mesh partitions, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. The lawsuit by the New Orleans public defenders office alleges that the jail makes it nearly impossible for lawyers to meet privately with clients, violating both the U.S. Constitution's right to counsel and the Louisiana code of criminal procedure.
Due to "unpredictable and unreasonable wait times and restricted visitation hours," the suit says, publicly financed lawyers must sometimes wait hours at the Orleans Parish jail to see indigent clients.
Marc Ehrhardt, a spokesman for the sheriff, said it is Gusman's policy not to comment on pending litigation. Gusman has defended his practices in the past by noting that he must limp along with Hurricane Katrina flood-damaged buildings until a new $145 million, four-story jail is completed in 2014.
The suit was filed in Civil District Court by retired Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero, who is joined at the plaintiffs' table by lawyers Philip Wittmann, Stephen Haedeicke and Elizabeth Cummings.
The suit says that the situation bleeds scarce dollars from the public defenders office, whose lawyers represent more than 80 percent of the defendants in 13,000 state cases brought this year in Criminal District Court.
"(T)hese conditions waste countless hours of valuable attorney time and disproportionately affect Orleans Parish Defenders' staff, whose indigent clients are the most likely to be confined pre-trial because of their inability to post bail," the suit says.
The city's prison complex holds roughly 3,000 inmates in five facilities: Templeman V, the Old Parish Prison, Conchetta, South White Street and the 10-story House of Detention and its eight FEMA tents. Wait times and conditions seem to be worst at the House of Detention and the tents, which together hold half of the jail's population.
There are some differences between facilities' visiting areas, illustrated in the lawsuit through schematics and descriptions. But the challenges are similar in all structures, according to the filing, which describes how lawyers and clients must talk about sensitive parts of cases or discuss plea deals while being overheard by inmates, visitors and deputies.
And instead of being able to privately review documents together, lawyers and jailed clients typically speak loudly on jail telephones or yell through partitions of thick, smeared Plexiglas and rough metal mesh.
In addition, four of the jail's five facilities have no pass-through slots, according to the suit, which cites lawyers' accounts of how they had to shuttle sensitive documents to their clients through jail deputies, who often failed to deliver them.
The suit asks the court to order Gusman to reduce wait times for lawyers, extend lawyer visitation hours to include evenings and weekends and "to make permanent improvements" allowing lawyers and inmates to talk privately and look over documents together.
By Katy Reckdahl, firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3396