Civil Liberties

Fail To Show Up at Traffic Court? Risk Dying at Orleans Parish Prison


The day after Oscar Fueselier was arrested and taken to Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), he was brain-dead, comatose, and handcuffed to a hospital bed. The 59-year-old Vietnam War vet with a history of mental health issues was being held in the jail for missing traffic court. His cellmate, 18-year-old Richard Jackson, was there on armed robbery charges. After complaining Fueslier smelled like urine, Jackson stomped on his head.

Fueselier was immediately taken to the jail's hospital and held there for three days, brain-dead and unresponsive. On his third day in the hospital, the office of New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman released Fueselier from custody, and he was transferred to a hospice. One week later, Fueselier died, and the official cause of death was listed as lung cancer. Because he was released from custody before he died, Fueselier's death was never investigated by the sheriff's office, and an official autopsy was never conducted.

According to a new multi-part investigative series published by Louisiana's Times-Picayune called "Dying at OPP," Fueselier was one of seven inmates who were released from custody shortly before they died. Because their deaths occurred after they were released, they don't appear on any official count of the jail's inmate fatalities. This, the Times-Picayune reports, is "a practice that critics say is an intentional circumvention of the public reporting requirements for in-custody deaths."

Beyond not officially reporting these seven deaths, Times-Picayune found that OPP failed to notify the families of several inmates who died while in custody. In some cases, families weren't notified until days or weeks after their relative had died.

In one case, the wife of an inmate was told her husband had been released when she called every day for two weeks; he had actually been dead the entire time. He died two days after he was brought to OPP on charges of domestic battery. In another case, the father of an inmate wasn't told that a guard had critically injured his son—who had been brought in two days earlier on charges of public drunkenness—until after he had been taken off life support. In a third case, the sister of an inmate was told she had been released when she had actually been declared brain dead, two days after being charged with biting a security officer. In all three cases, lawsuits have been filed alleging that mistreatment by OPP guards contributed to these inmates' deaths. The sheriff's office is fighting these claims.

Since 2006, a total of 44 inmates at OPP have died, including seven the sheriff's office did not report. According to the Times-Picayune, OPP's inmate death rate exceeded state and national averages "in all but one year from 2006 to 2011."

As one of the country's most notoriously awful jails, abuse, negligence, and incompetence have run rampant at Orleans Parish Prison for years. Things have gotten so bad that the jail was put under a federal consent decree in 2013 to improve conditions for inmates. In his opinion, Federal Judge Lance Africk wrote that the decree "is the only way to overcome the years of stagnation that have permitted OPP to remain an indelible stain on the community, and it will ensure that OPP inmates are treated in a manner that does not offend contemporary notions of human decency." (Emphasis mine)

The court ordered OPP to make several improvements, including reporting inmate deaths to a federal monitor who would then notify the U.S. Department of Justice. Despite these mandated changes, there are still no independent investigations after an inmate dies at the facility. Instead, New Orleans Parish sheriff deputies carry out inmate death investigations. 

For now, families of inmates who have died at OPP have little consolation. Five lawsuits in total have been brought against the New Orleans Sheriff's Department over inmate deaths, but sheriff's lawyers are fighting them all.