Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

New Orleans Jail Staff Supplied Fentanyl That Killed Incarcerated Man, Lawsuit Alleges

Staff at the troubled Orleans Justice Center are also accused of violating Edward Patterson’s constitutional rights by failing to treat his drug addiction.

The Orleans Justice Center in New Orleans.Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office/Facebook

The fentanyl that killed an incarcerated man in December 2018 was smuggled into the Orleans Justice Center by jail staffers, alleges a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of his family. The suit accuses staff at the troubled jail of violating Edward Patterson’s constitutional rights by failing to treat his drug addiction and letting drugs flow freely into the facility. 

“These conditions echo the complaints of many other families who have lost loved ones while incarcerated at the facility in recent years, and undoubtedly sustains the ongoing pattern of unconstitutional standards and practices at the Orleans Parish jail,” reads the Nov. 27 complaint, filed against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, 10 unnamed medical and jail staff members, and Wellpath, the jail’s contracted medical provider. 

“The conditions are unsafe,” Wesley Blanchard, an attorney who is representing Patterson’s family, told The Appeal. “They’re unsafe in the sense that people who are taken off the street and out of their homes like Mr. Patterson, awaiting trial, are subjected to conditions that put them at harm.” 

Blake Arcuri, an attorney representing the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office, declined to comment on specifics of the lawsuit, citing the ongoing litigation, but told The Appeal, “We consider the facts alleged by the plaintiffs to be blatant misrepresentations of what occurred and will aggressively defend the suit if and when it is served.” A spokesperson for Wellpath did not respond to a request for comment. 

Last week, a jail staffer was arrested on charges of smuggling unspecified contraband to a prisoner at the Orleans Justice Center in exchange for $1,150. This happened on four occasions, police say.

Patterson had been incarcerated at the jail since January 2015 awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge. On Nov. 26, 2018, according to the lawsuit, he was seen smoking an “unknown substance” and taken to the hospital after displaying abnormal behavior. By that time, he no longer showed any symptoms and was taken back to the jail, where he was returned to the same tier with the same people who had given him the drugs, the lawsuit states. 

Five days later, on Dec. 1, a prisoner alerted jail staffers that Patterson had collapsed and was unconscious in his cell. For the next 30 minutes, staff members gave him CPR, but they failed to call an ambulance right away, says the complaint. Upon finally arriving at the hospital, Patterson was declared dead from a fentanyl overdose. 

He was one of 20 people who either overdosed or were found unresponsive in the jail over a six-month period last year, according to a report by a federal monitor overseeing the facility. Other incidents include painkillers being discovered in the pocket of a prisoner who was taken to the hospital and two separate incidents in which prisoners were discovered unresponsive and administered naloxone, a medication used to treat opioid overdoses.

According to the lawsuit, drugs were commonly present in the part of the jail where Patterson was incarcerated because of staffing shortages that resulted in prisoners being left without supervision for extended periods of time. The fentanyl responsible for Patterson’s overdose was brought into the facility by an unnamed member of the medical staff and then passed off to a prisoner, the complaint alleges. It also states that jail staffers “intentionally permitted the inmate to introduce fentanyl onto the tier” and accuses them of knowing, yet ignoring, that medical staff were supplying drugs.  

Additionally, the lawsuit claims that both Gusman and Wellpath did not provide adequate medical care for people suffering from addiction within the facility. This is an issue that has long haunted the sheriff’s department and was a key aspect of a 2013 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and Southern Poverty Law Center to improve conditions at the facility, which was known for its frequent violence, poor medical care, and prisoner deaths. 

Although federal monitors overseeing the facility observed some improvements in medical care, they said in a March report that there has been a “lack of progress” in developing services for mental health and acute medical services. 

As part of his plan to bring the jail into compliance, Gusman has proposed building a 89-bed facility on the jail’s campus where people with mental health needs will be incarcerated. Opponents have criticized the idea, arguing that the current jail could be outfitted to include beds for people with mental health problems and that people should be sent to treatment centers instead of being incarcerated.

“Buildings don’t take care of people and keep people safe, people do, and right now the sheriff isn’t keeping people safe,” Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, told The Appeal. 

Gusman also proposed increasing the jail’s capacity to 1,731 beds from 1,438, but that was voted down last week by the City Council, which agreed to cap the jail population at 1,250 people as part of a compromise

Patterson’s lawsuit is the latest in a string of lawsuits alleging negligence by the jail’s operators. The mother of Jamaine Johnson filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff’s office after Johnson hanged himself while on suicide watch in May 2017. That lawsuit is being settled. 

Colby Crawford’s family filed a lawsuit against the jail in 2017, alleging that medical staff failed to treat his psychiatric disorders and allowed people to smuggle in the cocaine that caused him to die of an overdose.