The City of New Orleans and Sheriff Marlin Gusman reached a hard-fought settlement in federal court Monday under which Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration agreed to pay just shy of $1.9 million this year to begin implementing sweeping reforms at Orleans Parish Prison.
The financial agreement, which covers only through the end of the year, means that a federal consent decree, whose demands range from improved mental health treatment for inmates to better pay for guards, is officially in effect. The settlement, however, specifies that “nothing in this agreement obligates the city to provide specific levels of funding in 2014 and beyond.”
That apparently leaves it up to the City Council, at least initially, to sort out who must pay how much for next year and beyond to continue the reforms.
“While today marks an important milestone, the hard work is only beginning,” U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk wrote in his order approving the agreement.
The city must continue to pay the sheriff $22.39 a day for each city prisoner, as mandated by a decades-old court order.
When the mayor presented his proposed budget for 2014 to the City Council last week, he included no funding to implement the jail consent decree. The administration said it was leaving it up to the council to decide how much the city should pay to carry out the reforms.
The Department of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the class of prison inmates who sued the jail and jump-started the consent decree, signed off on Monday’s agreement, indicating that the money offered would be enough to begin cleaning up the unconstitutional conditions at the jail.
Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the Law Center, told the court that her organization supported the funding agreement, and pointed to a recent series of stabbings and a suicide at the jail as evidence that it remains a brutal place.
“The sheriff and the City of New Orleans agree that fundamental reform of the Orleans Parish Prison is necessary to ensure the safety of prisoners and staff as well as to promote public safety,” a spokesman for the Department of Justice said in a statement Monday. “The shocking conditions in the jail have been neglected for too long. ... We look forward to working aggressively with the sheriff and the city to bring the jail into compliance with the Constitution.”
Through the end of the year, the city will pay $1,888,652.07, which Landrieu spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said the city has saved through recent efforts to reduce the number of pre-trial inmates at the jail.
About $500,000 is earmarked for medical personnel. Hundreds of thousands more will go to raise the salaries of deputies assigned to the jail, hire 42 additional deputies, and purchase medical supplies and uniforms.
Gusman’s deputies have for years been the lowest-paid law enforcement officers in the region. He released a statement shortly after Africk approved the agreement, detailing the raises his employees will receive: Deputies’ salaries will jump from $21,000 to $27,000 a year; corporals will go from $27,000 to $31,500; sergeants from $28,000 to $33,000; and lieutenants from $33,000 to $34,000.
“I’m pleased to be able to compensate jail security personnel at a rate that is more competitive with other law enforcement agencies,” Gusman said. “With a more competitive pay scale, the Sheriff’s Office is in a better position to retain quality workers and attract new ones to our agency.”
The $1.9 million agreement represents a city investment of $26,231 per day for the rest of 2013. The City Council and administration would have to find $9.5 million in the 2014 budget to maintain that level next year.
“Both the sheriff and the mayor had to make difficult decisions in this case that will influence the citizens of this community on a daily basis,” Africk wrote. “These decisions, which required working together to reconcile sometimes-divergent interests, are the type of challenge that citizens entrust to their elected leaders.”
The sheriff and the city had already agreed in August to appoint a team to monitor the progress of the reforms at the jail, and to split the cost in some fashion. But they were still battling over just how much each side would have to pay to implement the decree’s mandates. In a bitter courtroom battle this summer, experts and inmates testified about continuing serious problems at the jail, and the city dug up a shocking video of prisoners, in their jailhouse jumpsuits, shooting drugs, playing dice, drinking beer, cavorting on Bourbon Street and playing with a loaded gun inside a prison tier.
The judge wrote Monday that he was “prepared to act imminently” and order a deal if a short-term settlement had not been reached.
“The court commends the sheriff and the mayor, however, for rising to the challenge and reaching a compromise on this matter,” Africk wrote. “Focusing on remedying conditions at Orleans Parish Prison, rather than on pointing fingers, is the only way to begin immediate implementation of the consent decree.”