New Orleans — Day three of a weeklong hearing to determine the city’s responsibilities for reforming the Orleans Parish prison complex under a proposed federal consent decree featured testimony from mental health experts, mentally ill inmates and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin.
The city has been trying to avoid legal exposure to the decree, saying the cost is prohibitive and that Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the parish jailer, is incapable of managing the turnaround effectively.
Presented this week in U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk’s courtroom, the case so far has drawn testimony primarily from two groups of witnesses: experts in criminology and inmates who have experienced the allegedly unconstitutional conditions at the jail.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center wrapped up their case Wednesday with testimony from two criminal justice experts with extensive experience in mental health. Gusman is scheduled to take the stand Thursday.
Aaron Steele, who said he suffers from schizophrenia and other illnesses, testified at length Wednesday. Steele has been held at the prison for almost two years, awaiting trial on a heroin charge.
Steele is one of dozens of inmates whose declarations of abuse prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center to file suit last April against the Sheriff’s Office. Steele said he came forward and participated in the lawsuit “so other guys coming through the prison won’t have to go through this.”
Steele’s testimony lacked the visceral punch of Tuesday’s shocking video depicting rampant illegality and depravity at the now-shuttered House of Detention. After seeing the video, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the jail should be put into federal receivership.
Steele’s testimony was disturbing nonetheless. He said he had seen many fights in areas of the jail set aside for mentally ill inmates, violence that led to broken jaws, broken noses and other injuries.
Steele’s testimony illuminated the “keep on person” policy at the Orleans Parish jail. Under that policy, inmates who have been prescribed medications are often given a supply of one or two weeks’ worth and then sent back to their cells under the assumption that the drugs will be responsibly self-administered.
Often, Steele said, the drugs are stolen by other inmates or sold.
The questioning generally ended Wednesday with witnesses being asked if they think relevant reforms mandated by the consent decree would at least minimally address the concerns raised. All of them said yes.
Cross-examination was handled for the city mostly by U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg, whose strategy was to argue that the severe problems raised in testimony are proof of Gusman’s incompetence, not a reason why the city should pony up what it estimates as the $110 million cost of compliance with the consent decree over five years.
Rosenberg has argued that prisoners are entitled to constitutional protections but not to services unavailable to other city residents, many of them needy.
Testifying on the urgent need for reform, Daphne Glindmeyer, an expert called by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Bruce Gage, an expert called by the Department of Justice, testified on the urgent need for the changes outlined in the consent decree. Both based their observations on visits to the Orleans Parish jail. Gage said the mental health areas are grossly inadequate and that medical health record-keeping at the jail facility is woefully bad.
Kopplin, the only witness called by the city, reiterated the financial argument made repeatedly by Landrieu: that the city can ill afford the $22 million annual cost of the mandated reforms.
“It is not a reasonable expectation that we could solve a $22 million problem without devastating cuts,” he said, adding that cuts to city services to pay for the consent decree would have an adverse impact on public safety.
The consent decree would place operations of the prison under a monitor’s review and would mandate improvements in staffing, suicide prevention, use of force policies and mental health care, among other reforms.
Kopplin claimed the sheriff and Justice Department had acted in bad faith by foisting the consent decree on the city without involving it in the negotiations. By contrast, he said, the city had participated extensively in negotiations over a separate consent decree targeted at reforming the New Orleans Police Department.
Kopplin batted back several attempts by the Justice Department’s lawyer, Laura Coon, to get him to admit that the city had been not only aware of the negotiations over the prison consent decree but had participated actively in them.
He conceded only that the city had a general awareness that a consent decree for the prison was afoot.
When Africk stepped in, echoing Coon’s line of questioning, Kopplin said: “Yes, I’m aware that city attorneys went to a few meetings, sent emails, but there was no substantive involvement about funding.”
Clearly irked, Africk, reminded Kopplin of a 2012 conference call in which all parties to the dispute — including the judge himself — discussed the consent decree, leaving no doubt substantive negotiations were underway.
“During the early course of the litigation, city attorneys represented to me that the city was actively involved in the negotiations over the consent decree. That’s a fact,” Africk snapped.
Africk had another question for Kopplin: “Is it city’s position that there needs to be some oversight of the sheriff’s department? Do you agree that there needs to be some oversight over the sheriff’s operation or should it continue as is?”
Kopplin replied: “The information and documents presented in this litigation show that the sheriff can’t handle the jail regardless of the money; that’s why we’ve called for federal receivership.”
This story was reported by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.