The New Orleans sheriff ordered the transfer of 600 inmates out of the city's jail this week, sending them to prisons in north Louisiana more than four hours away.
Public defenders say the move would make it all but impossible for them to represent many of their indigent clients. Many of the inmates who would be moved have not been tried or convicted of anything, and are just waiting to go to trial.
If the transfers go through, only 533 of New Orleans' 1,583 inmates will be housed in the city, the Times-Picayune reported. That means that two-thirds of city inmates will be hundreds of miles from their families, neighborhoods, and attorneys.
A new $145 million jail opened in September with almost 1,500 beds, replacing a crumbling facility known for neglect and riots. In the last few months, however, corrections officers have reportedly had trouble keeping order in the new building. In March, an unsupervised inmate hung himself in a jail shower.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman said the transfers were necessary to better train correctional officers. “This will also create a safe and secure environment for both staff and inmates,” his attorney wrote in a court filing on Tuesday, the New Orleans Advocate reported.
But Gusman might not be in charge for long. Federal officials have threatened to take over management of the jail, and this could be the last straw—attorneys for the Justice Department are asking a judge to strip the sheriff of his leadership.
Moving hundreds of inmates around the state is only the latest example in a long streak of dysfunction in the New Orleans criminal justice system. Public defenders in the city are already dealing with crippling funding cuts and have rejected some clients because they don't have the manpower or resources to defend them. As of last week, 142 inmates who qualified for public defenders were put on a waiting list instead of being given a lawyer.
If more inmates are transferred to jails hours away, "our attorneys do not have the capacity of time to visit out clients," defender Jee Park told local TV station WDSU. In effect, keeping indigent inmates hours away means that they will have little or no chance to meet their attorney and prepare a defense before going to trial.
Gusman objected to that logic. "They're crying wolf," he said of the public defenders office. "In today's technology they can communicate whatever, however they want with their clients."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.