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Families of dead inmates push for jail changes

Last Modified: Monday, November 26, 2012 5:18 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — They come clutching framed photographs of their loved ones in their best moments: wearing a broad smile at a wedding or posing in full military garb. But the stories they tell don't have happy endings.

Each ends at Orleans Parish Prison. Michael Hitzman and William Goetzee committed suicide, both while supposedly under observation by deputies. Cayne Miceli collapsed while trying to get out of 5-point restraints, dying at the hospital. The exact causes of Tracy Barquet Jr.'s death are unknown, but, like Miceli and Goetzee, he died in the care of the jail's psychiatric unit.

Their family members have unfurled the grim details in sit-down meetings with five of the seven New Orleans City Council members and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. All unlikely advocates, several members of the group have become regulars at City Council meetings on the jail and its budget.

They want to put a human face on the jail's most troubling statistic: 38 inmate deaths since Hurricane Katrina. They also want the city on board with a massive overhaul of the jail, a reform that will likely be outlined in a federal consent decree mandating scores of changes in how Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman runs his facilities.

"I'll be tormented and tortured every day of my life," said Donna Gauthier, who was engaged to Goetzee before he killed himself in the jail last year. "We thought it was a safe haven. He was getting whatever help he needed."

Sophia Becker, Miceli's sister, said the fact that others lost relatives after her sister's death in January 2009 makes her skeptical about prospects of reform under the current leadership. "It is very angering that more families are being affected," she said.

Fixing the jail's mental health care, which the U.S. Department of Justice has called profoundly inadequate in investigations from 2009 and earlier this year, is expected to be a key component of a consent decree. In federal court filings, the Justice Department has characterized the settlement as near completion. But negotiations last month hit an impasse over how to pay for the upgrades.

Gusman has said he supports a decree, but needs more money to comply. The city's attorneys for the city have scoffed at that in court filings, saying there is no evidence that the problems stem from insufficient funding.

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk in October appointed retired criminal court judge Terry Alarcon to try to work out an agreement. The next status hearing is scheduled Tuesday.

James Hitzman, whose son Michael hanged himself inside a Central Lock-Up cell, noted that the city has found money for a similarly broad consent decree to remake the New Orleans Police Department.

"They should be able to find that money somewhere. If things are not fixed under supervised conditions, things will not change," he said. "It is evident they can't do it on their own."

Civil rights attorney Mary Howell, who represents the four families that have become advocates of reform, said she understands the city's skepticism about simply forking over more money. For years, mayoral administrations and successive sheriffs tangled over how much money is needed to properly run the jail, but never reached a satisfactory answer. Now is the time to look to other cities and figure it out, she said.

"I do think it is correct that the city should not be writing a 'blank check,'" Howell said. "What they need to do is insist on transparency and accountability. The situation needs to be audited and monitored."

Each of the four deaths was "awful," Howell said. Hitzman's wife and children filed a lawsuit against the sheriff's office, which was settled. Lawsuits in the Miceli and Goetzee cases are still pending.

Furthermore, there are other deaths in recent years that are, at minimum, "very questionable" and should be looked at, Howell said.

In a statement, Dr. Samuel Gore, the sheriff's medical director, defended the jail's record, saying the jail's mortality rate is below the national average, while the suicide rate is just slightly above the national average and compares favorably to cities like Baltimore, Oklahoma City and Phoenix. Gore chafed at the suggestion deaths at the jail could be called "questionable," saying most of the inmate deaths stemmed from heart disease, AIDS or cancer.

Gore said his staff works to identify medical and psychiatric problems at booking, as well as analyzing each inmate death to see what caused it and what shortcomings it points up. He noted that the jail population is a challenging one.

"We encounter individuals daily with untreated or undertreated medical conditions, as well as an increasing number of untreated, undiagnosed or undertreated mental health disorders," Gore said.

But Justice Department investigators said jail conditions are unconstitutional, rooted in systemic problems such as inadequate supervision caused by too few deputies on tiers. The department detailed problems with how inmates are classified, the levels of violence between inmates and by guards, and lack of support for inmates who don't speak English. The agency repeatedly flagged mental health care as deficient, saying the treatment of suicidal inmates is inhumane.

Miceli's case was highlighted in the first Justice report. She was put in five-point restraints — a sort of harness that pins a person down — after allegedly attempting suicide in an isolation cell. An asthmatic, Miceli complained about not being able to breathe and eventually tried to get out of her restraints. She collapsed as deputies tried to put her back in them. Miceli had no pulse for about 35 minutes, according to a federal lawsuit, but was revived by CPR. She died at the LSU hospital when taken off life support.

An April 2012 report noted that "deficient monitoring" contributed to both Hitzman and Goetzee's deaths. Their suicides were also used as examples of the jail's allegedly inadequate mental health screening.

During his screening, Hitzman admitted to recently swallowing drugs. After acting erratically, he was put in an isolation cell equipped with a video camera. However, it appears nobody watched the video stream: no sheriff's employee intervened when Hitzman hanged himself with his shirt.

Goetzee, a longtime U.S. Coast Guard employee and commander in the reserves, was arrested in August 2011 after trying to grab a gun from a federal security officer outside court. During the struggle, Goetzee said, "I want to kill myself. Give me your gun," according to a complaint filed at federal court.

Goetzee had been seeking treatment for mental troubles from work exhaustion and a serious car accident.

Despite this history — and though he told jail screeners about his suicidal thoughts — the Justice Department found that Goetzee was kept in the general population before being sent to the Interim LSU Public Hospital. After he was returned to OPP, Goetzee was placed on suicide watch.

Goetzee committed suicide in the jail's suicide tank. He was supposed to be under direct observation, but deputy William Thompson left, giving Goetzee time to swallow enough toilet paper to suffocate himself.

Gore pointed to this case as an example of the sheriff's office holding itself accountable, noting that Thompson this year pleaded guilty to criminal charges of malfeasance in office. But Gauthier said the result was unsatisfying, as it appears no supervisors were disciplined for the lapse in protocol.

Most recently, in a federal court filing, the Justice Department noted that Tracy Barquet Jr. died in 2010 days after he was beaten and pepper-sprayed by guards. Barquet's death remains classified as "undetermined" by the Orleans Parish coroner.

Gore wrote that the coroner did not find any "indications of any physical confrontations that would be fatal, nor did the coroner find any signs of suicide" in Barquet's death. According to jail records, a deputy was disciplined for spraying pepper spray at Barquet through the cell bars. While inmates said Barquet was beaten, deputies denied it.

For Tracy Barquet Sr., his 25-year-old son's death continues to raise unresolved questions more than two years later. Barquet said his son had a drug problem, but had never had a previous history of seizures, one potential cause of death posited by the coroner's office. The events leading up to his son's death — including the alleged beating and pepper-spraying days before it — are troubling, he said.

"I just want some answers," Barquet said. "We did know he was ingesting drugs. He had a problem with that. I thought by him being in there he would be able to detox. That he was safe."

The sheriff office's post-mortem report describes Barquet behaving erratically and speaking strangely. A psychiatrist had prescribed Haldol several days before he died. But the report doesn't evaluate how much supervision he received from either deputies or medical personnel.

Howell said the deaths point to the need for outside investigations. She has asked Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to consider investigating all deaths at the jail. She also noted that Gusman, before his election, had pledged to hire an independent monitor, but never followed through.

In cases where the coroner doesn't find evidence of a homicide, outside probes could determine whether there was negligence or malfeasance on the part of jail staff that contributed to a death, she said.

Cannizzaro said he doesn't have the resources to investigate deaths at the jail and must rely on the sheriff's office to investigate itself. When a case is brought to the office, whether by Gusman or a victim's advocate like Howell, his staff reviews it, he said.

Gusman has been cooperative when the district attorney asks for files, he said.

In a statement, Gusman reaffirmed his support for a monitor, saying such a position could "play a productive part of the future of the sheriff's office." The statement did not say why he has never moved to hire one.

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