Judge dismisses La. prison whistleblower lawsuit

Judge said correctional officer was acting outside the scope of his duties when he passed a crime scene photo to a media source and a civil rights group

By C1 Staff

NEW ORLEANS — A judge dismissed a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a correctional officer who said he was fired after he gave photos of a bloody jail cell to a news source and a civil rights group.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said that former Orleans Parish Prison correctional officer Bryan Collins was acting outside the scope of his duties when he gave the photo to The Times-Picayune and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The photo was evidence of a 2013 attack inside the jail where a juvenile inmate was stabbed 20 times, which Collins said he witnessed.

Collins provided the photo after Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office issued a statement describing the 16-year-old victim’s wounds as “superficial cuts.”

Gusman said he welcomed the ruling, releasing a statement that said the Sheriff’s office said that Collins' suit lacked merit from the beginning.

Collins said in his suit that he made numerous reports to supervisors about dangerous conditions and inadequate staffing at the jail, which he says were ignored. He then began passing information to SPLC.

When supervisors realized someone was leaking information, they made general threats and eventually threatened to fire Collins and file criminal charges against him.

Collins resigned in October 2013 after an internal investigation revealed he had leaked the photo. His supervisors told him he could not return to work.

He argued in his suit that he had a First Amendment right to reach out to the press and SPLC despite department policy because he was speaking out on a matter of grave public concern.

Vance stated concern for the pending criminal investigation involving the attack, and the fact that Collins violated another jail policy by bringing in a camera phone.

“As an initial matter, plaintiff’s speech was made possible by his violation of the Sheriff’s Office’s prohibition on the possession of cell phones within the prison,” she wrote in her ruling. “These violations were especially egregious given that the photograph at issue depicted evidence and the crime scene in a then-open criminal prosecution.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Orleans Parish Prison inmates by SPLC, would eventually lead to federal oversight of the facility.

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