U.S. District Judge Lance Africk has postponed a hearing he called to address fire hazards at Orleans Parish Prison, allowing city and jail officials more time to correct the shortfalls before he decides whether to hold Sheriff Marlin Gusman in contempt of a federal consent decree.
Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of inmates who sued over unconstitutional conditions at the jail requested the delay, saying they were encouraged by recent efforts to repair the jail’s sprinkler and fire alarm systems.
Those improvements are expected to be finished next week, so Africk agreed Friday to put off a court hearing he had scheduled for Monday.
He scheduled a May 16 status conference to “address whether substantial progress or completion has been accomplished with respect to the fire- and life-safety measures.”
The delay also allows time for a follow-up inspection by the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
Africk approved a consent decree last year requiring Gusman to overhaul the long-troubled jail. Part of the reform calls for the jail’s fire- and life-safety equipment to be properly maintained and inspected on a regular basis.
Saying the sheriff fell short of those requirements, inmate advocates had asked Africk to schedule an expedited hearing and hold Gusman in contempt after they learned some jail facilities failed an annual inspection by the fire marshal.
The inspection found the jail’s fire alarm and sprinkler systems to be lacking and said combustible property was being improperly stored at the Old Parish Prison building. Those “grave deficiencies” not only violated the terms of the consent decree but endangered lives, the inmates’ attorneys argued.
City and jail officials hired an outside firm, Red Hawk Fire & Security, to make a list of repairs that are ongoing, including replacing leaking control valves and an inoperable fire pump motor.
The inmate advocates acknowledged Friday that “important steps are finally being taken to ensure adequate fire-safety systems are in place” at the jail, adding they were “very pleased to learn that improvements are underway.”
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