Attorneys for Sheriff Marlin Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu sought to allay concerns Thursday that Orleans Parish Prison exposes inmates to undue fire hazards because of inadequate safety systems, telling the federal judge overseeing reforms at the jail that improvements are underway.

The attorneys pushed back against a motion by the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of inmates that asks U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to hold Gusman in contempt for failing to upgrade the jail’s fire safety infrastructure as required by a consent decree that took effect in October.

That motion, which prompted Africk to schedule a hearing next week, accuses Gusman of ignoring concerns raised by the state Fire Marshal’s Office during a recent inspection of the jail.

Freeman Matthews, an attorney for the sheriff, suggested in a court filing that inmate advocates overreacted to the inspection and misinterpreted the fire marshal’s reports “in many respects.” He also underscored that the scheduled opening in late July of a new 1,438-bed jail could render some of the problems moot, as old buildings are mothballed.

“The battle being waged on this front has been an uphill one, but one the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has tirelessly been engaged in,” Matthews wrote. “Admittedly, there remain issues with some aspects of the fire-safety systems at Old Parish Prison and the (temporary housing) tents, facilities that are planned to be taken offline in the very near future. However, the Sheriff’s Office has gotten to the point that the majority of facilities under (its) administration are ‘green-tagged’ as compliant with the fire-safety code and fire marshal regulations.”

Brant Thompson, deputy chief of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the Sheriff’s Office has worked for years to improve fire safety for inmates and has made progress.

“It’s a tall order,” he said. “We’re talking about facilities that were built back in the 1930s; at that time, there were no requirements as there are with modern-day facilities to fire-safety issues. It’s a real challenge to get those facilities up to current code.”

The recent inspection found a need for service and maintenance to the jail’s fire alarm and sprinkler systems. At the old Parish Prison building, inspectors noted combustible property was not being stored properly and blankets and towels were being used as privacy curtains. “Housekeeping at the time of the inspection was severely lacking,” an inspection report said.

Despite its recurring issues, Thompson said, the jail is not in danger of being shut down. “In the absence of a properly functioning fire alarm system, they have done what is required to continue to occupy that facility,” he added. “Otherwise, we would have issued a cease-and-desist (order) and they would not have been allowed to utilize that facility.”

The fire-safety debate is the most recent salvo in the continuing litigation over the consent decree, a legal saga that has exposed — and sought to correct — systemic shortfalls at the prison. Africk last year deemed conditions at the lockup unconstitutional and ordered an overhaul intended to protect inmates from rampant violence and other risks, in part by boosting staffing and changing policies.

Among other requirements, the consent decree called on Gusman to ensure “fire- and life-safety equipment is properly maintained and inspected at least quarterly.” The sheriff has not met that burden, inmate advocates say, pointing to the jail’s inoperable sprinkler system, faulty pumps and questionable fire alarms.

Harry Rosenberg, an attorney for the city who often has been on the opposite side from Gusman in the prison litigation, aligned himself with the sheriff Thursday. He said inmate advocates and the Department of Justice apparently want to rewrite the consent decree by asking Africk to order Gusman “to undertake an expansive list of activities” that weren’t included in the original terms of the reform. That list includes several new safety measures and would require jail officials to conduct additional fire drills and appoint a full-time fire- and life-safety director.

Rosenberg asked Africk not to intervene. He said Sheriff’s Office and city officials have installed additional smoke detectors in the jail and hired an outside contractor to improve the jail’s “fire alarm/panel system” and sprinklers.

According to Rosenberg’s court filing, Africk told attorneys Monday that “inmates may have to be transferred out of OPP in the event that the court concludes that fire/safety measures are not adequate.”

Rosenberg reasserted the city’s position that state prisoners and Plaquemines Parish inmates being housed at the prison should be transferred to other jails as soon as possible to free up space and save “considerable taxpayer dollars, which could be used toward increased police protection, fire protection, and emergency health services for non-incarcerated individuals.”

It’s not clear where the remaining inmates would go if Africk orders them out of Old Parish Prison, the aging jail building behind the Criminal District Courthouse that documents show has the most pressing fire-safety deficiencies. A Gusman spokesman would not comment on whether the sheriff has a contingency plan in place.

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