OPP monitors: Progress at jail, long way to go

Sheriff Marlin Gusman has made strides toward improving the wretched conditions at Orleans Parish Prison, but inmates still face extreme risks and are not receiving proper medical care six months after a federal consent decree took effect, a team of experts reported Thursday.

In their first evaluation of the troubled jail, the monitors overseeing a court-ordered reform program found encouraging signs of change, but they compiled a wide-ranging list of problems that, if left to fester, will threaten any hope of permanent progress.

“The efforts of (the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office) since the consent judgment was approved are, in the view of the monitors, very positive,” the experts said, acknowledging that years of neglect and disarray cannot be reversed overnight. “While we commend those initiatives and commitment, we do not want to diminish the amount of work remaining.”

The findings, outlined in a 139-page report filed in U.S. District Court, underscore the uphill trek Gusman faces in steering the jail toward constitutionally acceptable conditions, a task he has asked voters to entrust him with as they return to the polls next month. The dysfunctionality at Orleans Parish Prison — and who is to blame for it — has become the central issue in the March 15 runoff as Gusman defends his record against Charles Foti, who in three decades as sheriff before Gusman generated his own share of embarrassing headlines with regards to the jail.

Unchanged is the jail’s reputation for rapes, escapes, stabbings — inmates still are assaulting each other with homemade “shanks,” the monitors said — and shoddy health care. The experts also encountered an “inattention to sanitation” and a “self-delusional” tendency of jailers to conclude that most, if not all, inmate grievances are unfounded.

Among the most serious weaknesses detailed in the report are the disorganized and inconsistent response to inmate-on-inmate violence and the subpar and often delayed medical treatment inmates receive.

“The level of harm and risk of harm in the Orleans Parish Prison system is extremely high,” the monitors wrote. “This is evident by the number of assaults on prisoners by other prisoners, including sexual assaults. Even more disturbing is that staff is often unaware that an assault is taking place due to the lack of supervision in the housing units.”

One inmate with an HIV infection had to wait two months to be evaluated for treatment, the monitors reported, while another inmate was not seen for two weeks after complaining of boils.

“The complacency evident in these cases is unacceptable,” they wrote. “Several inmates stated that they had put in multiple written requests for medical care and had not been seen.”

Under the terms of the consent decree, the next sheriff will be required to ensure a sweeping makeover of the jail, ranging from physical plant changes and beefed-up staffing to more careful classification of inmates and better record-keeping. The changes are geared in large part toward protecting prisoners from physical and sexual abuse and providing them adequate medical treatment while they await trial.

The monitors, who toured the jail late last year and conducted a series of interviews with inmates and Sheriff’s Office officials, noted some positive developments, including “better information exchange,” an internal inspection process that responds to safety concerns for inmates who suffer from mental illness and the anticipated opening this spring of a new jail building. “It is encouraging to see the efforts that the OPSO has made to begin the journey to reach compliance,” the report says.

But the experts made clear that the jail has a long way to go and that conditions are far from acceptable. Of the 171 provisions spelled out in the consent decree, the jail has yet to reach “substantial compliance” with any of them.

The jail has achieved “partial compliance” with 10 provisions but was found to be “non-compliant” with 85, the report says. The monitors did not assess some requirements because certain deadlines have not yet passed.

“We face challenges and we are making every effort to improve,” Gusman said in a statement. “Our work prior to this first report is ahead of schedule compared with jails of similar size facing compliance requirements. We will continue to cooperate with the monitoring team, and we will continue to achieve compliance in due course.”

Katie Schwartzmann, the attorney for a group of inmates who sued over the unconstitutional conditions at the jail, said implementing the consent decree is going to take time and “deep commitment from everyone involved.”

“We are encouraged by the preliminary steps OPSO has taken toward reforming OPP in recent months,” said Schwartzmann, co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, in a statement. “We remain deeply concerned, however, about the pace of reform and the dangerous conditions at the facility that persist. Reports of violence and sexual assault continue unabated, and people with serious mental health needs continue to decompensate.”

Schwartzmann echoed the monitors’ concern about the challenge the Sheriff’s Office faces in recruiting and retaining deputies to run the jail. The proper staffing levels have spurred prolonged debate, but the experts urged Gusman to “engage in meaningful discussions” with the city about raising the starting salary of deputies.

The current starting pay of $21,169 a year, or $10.77 an hour, is far less than the $34,797 recruits earn at the New Orleans Police Department and the $36,000 paid at the Kenner Police Department.

“In the view of the monitors, there is little doubt that the physical conditions in the current OPSO workplaces, the shortages of staff and the difficult circumstances of working with inmates create a tough ‘sell’ for potential employees,” the monitors wrote.

“Without the ability to compete in the New Orleans job market,” they added, “the repercussions for the operation of a safe jail environment are enormous and not positive.”

The cost of the consent decree and the particulars of the new jail under construction have been a recurring source of conflict between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. The monitors said the Sheriff’s Office blamed the city for failing to fund a full-time compliance coordinator, a position required by the consent decree that is designed to serve as a liaison between the parties and the monitoring team.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the city provided $1.8 million in additional interim funding for the sheriff last year, and has budgeted $2 million in increased funding for 2014. “We are continuing discussions with the sheriff and monitor while awaiting their proposals on staffing, classification and reducing the number of state prisoners at Orleans Parish Prison,” he said in a statement.