The federal judge overseeing a series of reforms at Orleans Parish Prison sounded a note of optimism Friday, praising the Sheriff’s Office and city officials for inching closer to constitutional conditions at the troubled lockup.
“I know that change is difficult, and changing something that has been in place for an especially long time is difficult to accomplish,” U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said, “but I’m starting to feel that we’re making some progress in connection with the consent decree and the Orleans Parish Prison, and I’m grateful for that.”
Speaking from the bench during a hearing he called in a landmark class-action lawsuit, Africk seemed as positive as he has been in months about the future of the jail, speaking of “freer communication of ideas and information” and a thawing of the chilly relations between the Sheriff’s Office and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which under state law must foot the bill for local inmates’ care.
“Honestly, I’m starting to feel optimistic that we’re beginning to make some progress,” Africk added, “although I understand there will be some bumps in the road as we move along.”
Africk’s brighter outlook was tempered by a status report offered by Susan McCampbell, the court-appointed expert tasked with monitoring the reforms, who said jailhouse violence remains all too common a year after the consent decree between Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the U.S. Justice Department went into effect.
“There’s been, by my count, about 93 major issues since I spoke with you in August,” McCampbell told the judge, “all the way from inmate-inmate assaults and stabbings to uses of force” by deputies.
While the Sheriff’s Office has filled some key positions spelled out in the consent decree, the agreement that outlines the mandatory reforms, McCampbell described a revolving door in which the agency has gained a net of only 28 additional employees this year — a mark she referred to as “not necessarily good news” — because of an attrition rate of some 10 employees a month.
Much of the violence gripping OPP is attributable to a lack of supervision of inmates. Gusman needs to hire scores of new deputies to comply with the consent decree and safely staff the new $145 million jail expected to open next year.
For their part, Sheriff’s Office officials noted a class of 29 new recruits is set to begin Monday, with another class of 30 expected to follow soon thereafter.
A development McCampbell said she would “underline three times” is the long-awaited passing of the torch for inmate medical and mental health care this weekend to a newly hired third-party vendor, Correct Care Solutions.
“I don’t think we can underestimate the significance of that, not only to the health and welfare of the inmates but also to the safety of the facility and the safety of the staff,” McCampbell said, “particularly for the mental health caseload, which I think is underserved and therefore contributes a lot to the violence in the facility.”
Inadequate medical care was among the chief reasons Africk deemed conditions in the jail unconstitutional last year and ordered the reforms.
Gusman, who for weeks refused to identify the company that won the bid, has portrayed the outsourcing of inmate medical care as a potential game-changer.
That remains to be seen, but the services will come at a hefty price, adding to the mounting costs triggered by the consent decree. The company, Correct Care Solutions, based in Nashville, Tennessee, signed a five-year contract with the Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 17 worth more than $15 million a year.
Harry Rosenberg, an attorney for Landrieu, complained Friday that city officials just recently received a copy of the contract and still haven’t been able to “fully examine” it. Noting that the city had not been a part of the closed-door bidding process, Rosenberg said the city wants to ensure the agreement is in keeping with “good government.”
Friday’s hearing shed no new light on the unresolved question of whether Africk intends to intervene in the disagreement between Gusman and Landrieu over whether New Orleans needs a multimillion-dollar jail addition to accommodate inmates in need of acute mental health care — whose proper treatment is required by the consent decree.
The sheriff insists the proposed building, known as the Phase III facility, must be constructed if for no other reason than to ensure the city has enough jail space to house its average daily inmate population without releasing violent criminals. Landrieu has said he’d prefer to reduce the inmate population through criminal justice reforms and renovate the new jail to provide the mental health treatment.
McCampbell said the monitoring team’s next tour of the jail is scheduled for January.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.