The report card is in, and for the second time this year, the Orleans Parish Prison has received failing grades across the board, frustrating inmate advocates who say they’ve waited too long for reforms at the beleaguered jail.
A team of experts who inspected the prison recently said they found conditions largely unchanged from the disarray and understaffing they encountered during their first visit in December. The pace of change remains obstinately slow 10 months after a federal consent decree designed to overhaul the jail took effect, according to a 138-page compliance report published Tuesday.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman has inched toward compliance with some provisions of the consent decree, the report said, but other aspects of the jail, including medical and mental health treatment for inmates, have actually regressed in recent months, underscoring the uphill trek officials face in reversing years of neglect. Mental health care in particular, the experts found, is “virtually nonexistent.”
The consent decree, signed last year with the federal government after inmates filed a class-action lawsuit over the jail’s deplorable conditions, spelled out scores of required changes, from rewriting Sheriff’s Office policies to beefing up staffing.
Tuesday’s report, filed in U.S. District Court, noted a “sustained level of activity” over the past seven months toward satisfying the agreement, which was approved last year by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.
But the experts, who are tasked with monitoring the reforms and reporting back to Africk, said the Sheriff’s Office has shown a fundamental lack of urgency, even as inmates remain at “extremely high” risk. The report also questioned the commitment of the Sheriff’s Office’s leadership.
The Sheriff’s Office remains out of compliance with 85 percent of the consent decree, the report found, while it has managed “partial compliance” with 22 of the decree’s 174 provisions. “The amount of work to achieve compliance,” the report said, “is so great that even small positive steps are overwhelmed by what is next.”
“As is often pointed out, the conditions in the Orleans Parish jail system have been decades in the making and will take time to resolve,” the report added. “However, that time means that staff and inmates are in an extremely dangerous and unsafe environment every day.”
Katie Schwartzmann, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney whose lawsuit resulted in the consent decree, said Tuesday that Gusman’s “failure to make meaningful progress in implementing reforms to keep people at OPP safe is inexcusable.”
“The lack of progress outlined in the monitor’s second report to the court reflects the grave and deadly continuing crisis facing the men, women and youth in Orleans Parish Prison,” Schwartzmann said in a written statement. “Medical care, mental health care and violence have continued to worsen, jeopardizing the lives of everyone who is held at the jail, as well as the staff. Our clients and their families demand — and taxpayers deserve — real and immediate progress in changing the conditions that endanger the lives and health of New Orleanians held at the jail.”
Gusman’s spokesman, Philip Stelly, sought to downplay the report’s criticism and said the Sheriff’s Office is “committed to achieving substantial compliance in all areas of the consent agreement.” Since the monitors’ last report, he said, Sheriff’s Office officials “have initiated several working groups that will lead us to compliance in additional areas.”
He noted that the Sheriff’s Office is in final contract negotiations with a medical and mental health provider, a firm the office has refused to identify.
“Sheriff Marlin Gusman has personally been in close contact with the independent monitor, and he is leading the effort to reverse areas of non-compliance into compliance with the consent agreement,” Stelly said.
The monitors’ harshest criticism of the sheriff appeared to be for his failure to meet several hiring deadlines detailed in a recent funding agreement with city officials. The team of experts has made clear that filling those key positions is necessary if the Sheriff’s Office is to have any chance of hiring the hundreds of additional deputies needed to satisfy the court-ordered jail reforms.
“This inaction derailed activities designed to promote the safety of the jail and compliance with the consent judgment, as well as the successful opening of the new (1,438-bed) jail,” the report said.
The monitors’ report also revealed that the Sheriff’s Office, furthering a trend of outsourcing consent decree-related work, has hired two outside firms to assist with its impending move into the new jail, slated for the beginning of next year. Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services Inc. of Denver has been retained to assist with writing policies and procedures and training staff for the move into the new $145 million, direct-supervision style jail. Another firm, Carter Goble Lee, also has been retained to assist with the logistics of the move, including staffing and training, the report said.
The Sheriff’s Office “has to ensure that the opening of the new jail simply does not transfer these operational and staffing deficiencies and the level of dangerousness into a new building,” the monitors wrote.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.