City expert says OPP severely understaffed

According to the city’s own experts, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is vastly understaffed, needing 135 more security deputies and 13 more nurses and other health care workers even to run a sharply downsized jail complex, at an added cost of $7 million a year.

Also, the city’s consultants say the new jail now nearing completion, slated for 1,438 beds, can’t handle the number of projected prisoners it will receive even under a best-case scenario.

That scenario includes shedding nearly 500 state inmates and 66 Plaquemines Parish inmates who being held in New Orleans under an expiring contract. The jail houses around 2,300 total inmates.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office had refused to release its jail staffing review to The Advocate. But U.S. District Judge Lance Africk agreed Thursday to allow a report to be made public that summarizes the work of three national consulting firms hired by the city to project inmate populations and jail-staffing costs.

The results could undermine the city’s core argument in a federal court proceeding over the price tag for widespread jail reforms: that Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s overspending and mismanagement, not underfunding by the city, is to blame for any unconstitutional conditions in the maligned jail complex.

The $7 million figure still falls far short of the $20 million-plus boost Gusman claims is needed to fund reforms at a jail notorious for inmate violence; shoddy care of mentally ill and suicidal inmates; poor sanitation; and thin staffing.

The city maintains that the Sheriff’s Office could divert many deputies from other, less pressing duties to adequately staff the jail.

The report, authored by James Austin of JFA Institutes, shows that the daily cost per inmate is projected at $79 for 2014.

Under a long-established court agreement, the city pays less than $24 per inmate, although it also spends millions more on benefits for deputies, fuel for Sheriff’s Office cars, utilities for some jail buildings and other added costs.

All told, the city pays well over $30 million a year for sheriff’s costs, budget figures show.

According to the report, meeting the demands of the consent decree will drive up inmate costs significantly, even as the jail population drops and after several decrepit jail facilities are shuttered.

It indicates that the jail is still vastly understaffed to handle even the 1,583 inmates projected in the study, about half the number it held in early 2012.

The recommended addition of 148 security and medical staff, meanwhile, would increase jail manpower by nearly a third.

The study also recommends keeping open the Templeman V jail building, which has a bed capacity of 316, to handle what the new jail cannot. A City Council ordinance requires the rest of the permanent jail facilities to shut down with the opening of the new jail, which Gusman has said will go online by January.

In a statement, Gusman didn’t comment on the conclusions of the report, but cast suspicion on the city’s tactics.

“The sheriff’s office received the report this month because Judge Africk ordered the parties to exchange reports,” the statement read. “We can’t speak to the city’s motivation for withholding its own consultant’s report, but the sheriff’s office has and will continue to be transparent.”

Gusman’s willingness, or lack thereof, to back up his financial numbers with details, as well as his late filing of budget documents in federal court, has brought repeated rebukes as a legal battle plays out over who should pay for the raft of mandated reforms to the jail.

A spokesman for Landrieu did not return a request for comment on the report.

Africk said Thursday that he has not yet decided whether Gusman must tap several million dollars in revenue from the civil side of his office — including proceeds from foreclosure sales and process service — to help fund a jail that passes constitutional muster.

Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, took the stand on Thursday to argue that Gusman’s claim of a deficit should be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

“Wasting money or increasing expenditures to produce a deficit does not make a constitutional jail,” he said.

But one city argument, that Gusman could go to the voters to free up law enforcement district funds so they can be spent on jail operations, and not just capital projects, met with a dismissive wave from the judge.

“I’m not waiting on an election,” Africk said.

The case is scheduled to resume on Aug. 5, with a hearing on just what is needed to meet the demands of the jail reform plan that Gusman, inmate advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice signed in December, and which Africk approved last month.

In the meantime, conditions at what some experts consider one of the nation’s worst jails remain troubling, said attorney Katie Schwartzmann of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents inmates in the case.

According to documents submitted to the court, an average of 60 inmates were routed to the hospital per month last year, including about 20 per month with lacerations, punctures, fractures or dislocations.

Schwartzmann noted that one inmate, Brian Ellis, was stabbed 27 times on the day last month that Africk endorsed the jail reform deal. On Thursday, she said, one inmate got jumped and another had a “mental health incident” that she declined to specify.

“The calls have continued unabated, and the last couple of months are no exception,” she said. “They’ve continued to experience really serious incidents of harm.”