Officials outline N.O. jail overhaul

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has agreed to a massive overhaul at the Orleans Parish jail complex through a consent agreement with the Justice Department that’s aimed at correcting civil rights violations at the facility by providing humane treatment for prisoners.

The announcement of the agreement was made Tuesday morning with the planned new jail complex serving as a backdrop to officials promising to correct long-standing problems with violence, rape and abuse at the complex. The press conference featured Gusman; Roy L. Austin Jr., the deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division; and Katie Schwartzmann, the director of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Louisiana office. Gusman touted the agreement as a crucial phase in improving the jail.

“This is a significant next step to create one of the finest public safety operations in our country,” he told the assembled media.

The agreement focuses on protecting prisoners from both physical and sexual abuse; providing adequate medical care including mental health and suicide prevention services; and providing non-English speakers with translators to meet their needs.

The agreement also discusses changing the funding method for the facility by moving away from a system which provides payments based on the number of prisoners because that practice encourages problematic overcrowding at the jail complex.

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk must approve the agreement before the changes can be implemented. Prior to the conference, Austin said the agreement offers concrete solutions for the problems at the jail complex.

“The Justice Department is eager to move forward with proactive solutions to the inhumane conditions that have plagued the Orleans Parish Prison,” Austin said in a press release.

The Justice Department began investigating the jail complex in February 2008 and brought in several experts to conduct a review of the facility. Initial findings were released in 2009, but an update was issued in April 2012 after investigators determined that the same problems persisted and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations. In September, the Justice Department became involved in that lawsuit. Schwartzmann, whose group is representing 10 prisoners, said in a prepared statement that she believes in the new agreement.

“While implementation will be difficult, we are committed to improving conditions and will working with (the sheriff) to do so. We also need the city to work with us and provide funding to truly fix this jail,” she said.

Funding for the jail complex has been a source of contention between Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office and Gusman. With city coffers stretched to the limit, Landrieu’s office has balked at Gusman’s request for $40 million to begin reforms at the jail complex and questioned whether the problems at the complex truly stem from a lack of funding. Ultimately, the court will decide how much money will be needed to implement the reforms, according to the agreement.

On Tuesday, Gusman acknowledged the current funding impasse but said the two groups are still working to reach an agreement. The city already is looking at spending more than $50 million to comply with a consent decree involving the New Orleans Police Department that will require wholesale changes in that agency.

Just like with the police department, one of the key components of the agreement is the establishment of an independent monitor, who will be jointly selected by the law center, Sheriff’s Office and Justice Department before being approved by the court. That monitor will review Gusman’s progress towards complying with the agreement and will compile biannual reports to present to the court. Because the monitor is not a public agency, the information it complies will not be subject to public records requests, according to the agreement.

The monitor will examine the creation and implementation of new use-of-force guidelines for deputies and the creation and implementation of new system of monitoring deputies to identify early those with violence problems, according to the agreement. The monitor also will be tasked with reviewing a new staffing plan for the jail complex, food service operations, suicide-prevention services, sanitation and fire safety.

Although a sense of collaboration was stressed during the press conference, it wasn’t long before signs of the still real stress between the groups appeared. Gusman sent out a strongly worded press release within hours of the event that accused the law center of using the false statements of inmates to further its own interests. Gusman was upset by allegations made by two inmates represented by the law center that alleged widespread criminal activity and sexual abuse at the jail complex.