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Arrested for Shoplifting and Dead 2 Days Later

A lawsuit filed by Kentrell Hurst’s children is the latest against New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman over jail conditions.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

On May 25, 2018, Kentrell Hurst allegedly shoplifted $56.63 worth of items from a New Orleans grocery store. After the police arrested her, they ran her name and found she was wanted for two municipal tickets: theft of $37.43 and battery. Her court records show she had failed to pay $125 in fines related to the theft and $125 related to the battery. Hurst, 36, was arrested and brought to the Orleans Parish Prison. She died two days later.

Last month, almost a year after Hurst’s death, four of her children filed a lawsuit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the sheriff’s deputies, and the jail’s medical provider, Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath), and members of its staff.

The family’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. Blake Arcuri, general counsel for the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office, told The Appeal in an email that the office would not comment because the case is in litigation. Wellpath spokesperson Judy Lilley said via email, “We have not been served with the attached complaint and as a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation.”

Hurst struggled with an addiction to opioids, according to the suit. Her court records include a history of municipal tickets and traffic violations, which resulted in more than $6,000 in fines over the course of 11 cases—all but one for $15 remained unpaid. About a month before her arrest, she had testified at the trial of a man accused of raping, beating, and choking her in 2016, according to local news reports. He was convicted of kidnapping, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the rape charge.

Hurst’s bond for the shoplifting arrest was set at $1,500 and her arraignment was scheduled for May 29, according to court records.

During her brief incarceration, she reported to medical staff and deputies that she was vomiting, nauseous, and suffering from severe abdominal pain, the suit claims. But her vitals were not monitored and she was not taken to the hospital—neglect that led to her death, according to the suit.

“We’re really happy that someone is coming forward with this,” Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said of the Hurst family’s suit. “Kentrell Hurst’s story is a picture of what’s happening to a lot of people.”

People don’t go to jail to die. People don’t go to jail and expect they won’t be coming out.

Will Snowden Director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans

Hurst’s death exposes the many failures of the Orleans Parish legal system, in particular its inadequate medical care, according to advocates. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved a consent decree with the parish sheriff, which aimed to improve conditions at the jail after finding that there were “stark, sometimes shocking, deficiencies in OPP’s [Orleans Parish Prison] medical and mental health care system.” Many of these problems still exist, including inadequate care for patients who are detoxing.

“These defendants have failed to make appropriate and necessary changes in policies, procedures, staffing, training, and/or facilities to protect inmates from harm, including harm from a failure to provide adequate medical care,” reads the suit.

The jail has been besieged by deaths, suicide attempts, and lawsuits against Sheriff Gusman and its medical care provider. Nevertheless, last September, the city extended its contract with Wellpath, according to the New Orleans Advocate. The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Last year, the family of Narada Mealey sued Gusman and Correct Care Solutions (before its merger) after Mealey died while detoxing from heroin. He was admitted to the jail on Oct. 27, 2017, for a misdemeanor probation violation, according to the suit. Like Hurst, Mealey reported to jail staff that he had been vomiting and experiencing abdominal pain but did not receive medical help, the suit alleges. He died on Nov. 2 of complications from a perforated gastric ulcer, according to his family’s complaint.

“People don’t go to jail to die,” said Will Snowden, director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans. “People don’t go to jail and expect they won’t be coming out.”

Hurst’s case and the thousands of dollars of fines she incurred illustrate the city courts’ economic exploitation of Black residents, according to Snowden. As of June 10, the jail has 1,200 residents; about 80 percent of those are Black men, and about 7 percent are Black women.

In 2017, 8 out of 10 people in New Orleans charged with a felony who were incarcerated for more than two days because they couldn’t pay bail were Black, according to a report Vera released today on the need to abolish money bail and conviction fees. Eliminating money bail would reduce the city’s jail population by 304 to 687 people, according to the report.

“The criminal legal system is designed in New Orleans to really be focused on the extraction of wealth from poor Black and brown people,” said Snowden.

Last August, in response to a class action lawsuit, federal judge Sarah Vance declared that it was unconstitutional for New Orleans criminal court judges to jail people for failing to pay fines without inquiring about their ability to pay. She also found that judges had an inherent conflict of interest in making this determination because the money collected from defendants can go into the judicial expense fund, which covers courthouse related costs.

“The people who unfortunately have contact with the system are often the individuals who are bearing the responsibility of paying for the system as well,” said Snowden.

Like many others in the New Orleans jail, Hurst needed treatment, not fines and incarceration, said Snowden. In the first two months of this year, almost 30 people at the jail attempted suicide, according to the New Orleans Advocate.

“When you pop the hood and see all of these things that are going on in the local jail,” Snowden said, “they’re so divorced from how justice should be administered in our city.”