New jail’s opening delayed as questions abound _lowres

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- An exterior of the new facility to house inmates in Orleans parish. Sheriff Marlin Gusman is overseeing the construction of a new prison facility for Orleans parish inmates Tuesday, February 18, 2014.

The risk of violence at Orleans Parish Prison remains “extremely high,” but Sheriff Marlin Gusman has made significant strides in his bid to implement a long list of court-ordered reforms, perhaps most noticeably when it comes to the medical and mental health care afforded to inmates.

Those were among the chief findings in a semiannual report card released Wednesday by a team of corrections experts monitoring the sheriff’s progress on a series of changes ordered by a federal judge — a consent decree among Gusman, the U.S. Department of Justice and inmate advocates that took effect nearly two years ago.

The monitoring team, in a 154-page report, wrote that inmate medical care, which Gusman has outsourced to a third-party company called Correct Care Solutions, appears to be “as close to constitutional requirements as in any recent years.”

“More work needs to be done, but the level of care has improved dramatically since Correct Care Solutions Inc. began providing services to perhaps the most physically and mentally ill population in Orleans Parish,” the report said. “As prior to CCS taking over care the medical and mental health care was totally and grossly inadequate, it will take some time to put the systems of care into place.”

The experts credited the Sheriff’s Office with reaching “partial compliance” with 114 of the 173 provisions outlined in the consent decree — up from 60 six months ago. The report noted, however, that Gusman has achieved “substantial compliance” with only 7 percent of the provisions, underscoring “critical shortfalls” at the lockup and “monumental challenges” that lie ahead.

The consent decree, the result of a class-action lawsuit filed by inmates, called for wholesale changes at OPP, including a major increase in the number of deputies securing the jail and a sweeping rewrite of Sheriff’s Office policies. The agreement followed a finding by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk that conditions at the jail had become unconstitutional and were leaving “an indelible stain” on the community.

The monitoring team, delivering its fourth report, sounded an overtly optimistic tone on the jail’s progress, echoing many of the sentiments Gusman has expressed as he draws within days of transferring inmates from the dilapidated Old Parish Prison into a new $145 million lockup. The sheriff consistently has blamed substandard inmate conditions on an antiquated physical plant that, in many respects, is beyond repair.

“The Sheriff’s Office is steadily moving toward compliance, and we expect to make even more progress toward compliance as we move to the new inmate housing facility in the coming days,” Gusman said in a statement Wednesday. “We are continually expanding (our staff) and the tactics that will bring this office into full compliance with the consent agreement.”

Aside from concerns about rampant inmate-on-inmate attacks, the monitoring team expressed new worries about whether the new jail will be adequately staffed.

“While (the Sheriff’s Office) believes it will have the individuals hired and trained in time to open the new jail,” the experts wrote, “that is a long way from having a cadre of experienced officers and supervisors to operate the new direct-supervision jail.”

The design of the new facility will allow deputies to more closely monitor the activities of inmates. The improved vantage points are expected to reduce the number of jailhouse attacks.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.