See inmates play with guns and drugs
02:36 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

A 2009 video shows Orleans Parish inmates using drugs in squalid cells

"Why're we in here?" one inmate asks of the decrepit jail

The Orleans Parish sheriff says the facility was closed in 2012

New Orleans mayor wants the jail put under federal control

CNN  — 

On shaky, grainy video recordings, a group of men show off a stash of pills, pop open Budweiser tall boys and shoot dice for stacks of cash. One injects what appears to be heroin; another displays a large-caliber pistol, ejecting four bullets from the chamber to show that it’s loaded.

Here’s the punchline: These guys are already in jail.

The scenes were captured in 2009 on a camera smuggled into the House of Detention in New Orleans, a decrepit lockup pressed back into service after Hurricane Katrina. The video’s release during a federal court hearing this week sparked a new demand by the city’s mayor for the federal government to take over the Orleans Parish prison system and a round of I-told-you-sos by advocates for the inmates held there.

In addition to the displays of contraband, the inmates in the now-shuttered facility show themselves dishing out soup from bins in grungy, overcrowded cells and sleeping on mattresses laid on floors. One holds up glue traps he says are used to catch nutria, a rat-like pest that has infested much of southern Louisiana and notes that the jail was supposed to have been closed.

“Why’re we in here, then?” he asks. “ACLU investigated, and they told them it’s closed down … why’re we in here?”

This week’s hearings in U.S. District Court are part of a lawsuit filed against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center say Gusman’s neglect led to “brutal and inhumane conditions” for inmates, many of whom are jailed for non-violent misdemeanor offenses.

“Hearing some of the testimony and looking at some of the video of the jail itself, I cannot imagine the conditions of any human being living in those conditions,” James Hitzman, the father of an inmate who killed himself in the prison two years ago, told CNN affilliate WVUE.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Gusman said he closed the House of Detention in 2012 because of its “state of disrepair and abhorrent lack of proper security measures.”

“Following Hurricane Katrina, we were forced to reopen the House of Detention to house inmates, because other inmate facilities were destroyed by the floods. It was never meant to be a long-term solution,” Gusman said. “In addition, we have been using eight temporary tents to house inmates. These facilities were never meant to be used this long for these purposes.”

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is weighing whether to approve a settlement with the sheriff’s office that would require the parish to provide appropriate housing, protection and medical care for inmates. But New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for a federal receiver to be put in control of the jail after the release of the video, which he said was turned up by the city’s lawyers.

“It is now clearer than ever that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is not keeping the prison secure and our city safe,” Landrieu said in a statement. “The people of the city are investing over $226 million to build new prison facilities and over $30 million each year in the taxpayer money to operate the jail. I cannot in good conscience cut vital services or raise taxes to put even more money into an office where waste, fraud, and abuse run rampant.”

CNN’s Karan Olson and Jake Carpenter contributed to this report.