DOJ, St. Tammany agree on improved jail conditions

COVINGTON, La. (AP) — The federal government and St. Tammany Parish have reached an agreement on improved conditions at the parish jail that include changes in its mental health treatment for prisoners and how they house suicidal inmates.

The U.S. Department of Justice began investigating jail operations in April 2011. The Times-Picayune reports (http://bit.ly/1cRf8rm) the review came after the American Civil Liberties Union published a report saying that holding prisoners in “squirrel cages” was cruel and unusual punishment.

The department released its findings in July 2012, saying certain conditions at the parish jail violated prisoners’ constitutional rights to adequate health care, including adequate suicide prevention.

In Thursday’s agreement, the Justice Department praised Sheriff Jack Strain and Parish President Pat Brister for making changes, many of which Strain said were in place or pending when the department’s findings were released last year.

“This document essentially codifies the changes that Sheriff Jack Strain and Parish President Pat Brister have put in effect over the past several years,” a news release from the sheriff’s office said.

The Justice Department noted the Sheriff’s Office’s removal of “squirrel cages,” cells that were just 3 feet wide, 3 feet long and 7 feet tall, used to hold suicidal prisoners. Strain said those cages were removed more than a year ago and that the parish jail has since added a mental health wing to house suicidal prisoners.

Other changes the Department of Justice noted include improved screening and assessments of prisoners with serious mental health needs, improved suicide precautions and enhanced staff training on mental health and suicide prevention.

“The citizens of St. Tammany Parish and our deputies can and should be very proud of the fact that our jail is run in such a professional manner that the Department of Justice retreated from their initial demand for a consent decree — an extremely rare occurrence,” Strain said.

“The improvements that were in the works, and are now being recognized by the Department of Justice, were desired by all involved parties,” said Brister. “The advancement of jail operations benefits us all, and were logical and reasonable changes that occur in the evolution of any operation, public or private.”

The St. Tammany Parish Jail is located in Covington and houses about 1,000 adult male and female prisoners. The jail is staffed by about 225 law enforcement officers and civilian employees.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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