Violence reigns, as ever, at Orleans Parish Prison, and inmates still face “extremely high” risks of harm, but Sheriff Marlin Gusman has made incremental headway in remedying the substandard state of the lockup that has festered for decades.
That sobering, if familiar, assessment formed the crux of a 140-page report published Wednesday by a team of court-appointed experts who toured the jail last month.
The experts, known as monitors, said they found Gusman’s deputies working to implement a series of court-ordered reforms at OPP, yet “not at the pace or with the sense of urgency required given the tasks at hand” and the danger to inmates.
The jail reforms, the monitors wrote, have been hobbled by understaffing and a lack of funding, raising questions about whether the Sheriff’s Office will be able to safely open a new 1,438-bed jail this year.
The Sheriff’s Office “has to ensure that the opening of the new jail simply does not transfer these operational and staffing deficiencies into a new building,” the monitors wrote.
The new jail’s opening date is “currently not known,” the report says, though it’s projected for late April.
Delivering their third report on the jail’s progress, the experts credited the Sheriff’s Office with reaching “partial compliance” with 60 of the 174 provisions outlined in the consent decree that Gusman signed with the U.S. Justice Department in 2013 — up from 22 provisions last summer. Among other changes, the consent decree requires a rewriting of Sheriff’s Office policies and significant increases in staffing, measures intended to protect inmates and improve accountability among deputies and supervisors.
While acknowledging Gusman’s progress, the report also sounded concern that the Sheriff’s Office has become a rudderless ship, saying the abrupt departure late last year of Michael Tidwell, Gusman’s chief corrections deputy, has “crippled the initiatives” needed to satisfy the consent decree, hire new deputies and prepare for the move into the new jail.
“The chief of corrections position was … an important cog in the wheel of all the work to be done,” the report says. “Such an agenda of critical activities and an absence of experienced leadership would overwhelm an experienced and well-resourced agency.”
Katie Schwartzmann, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney whose class-action lawsuit resulted in the consent decree, said the latest report identifies “significant steps forward” but that jailhouse violence is “as serious or worse” than it was when the litigation began in 2012.
The report refers to 226 “critical incidents” since Aug. 1. That designation includes cases of use of force by deputies, inmate-on-inmate assaults, attempted suicides, allegations of sexual assault and allegations of deputies assaulting inmates.
“Terrible things are continuing to happen inside of the jail that affect thousands of members of our community,” Schwartzmann said. Jail violence, she added, “costs taxpayers an extraordinary amount of money on medical care and hospitalizations.”
Gusman said he hoped the latest report would be used as a “springboard” for all parties — including the city, which under state law must pay for inmates’ care — to reach full compliance with the consent decree. “It is critically important that we have the resources and systems in place to ensure the safe operation of the new jail,” the sheriff said.
The monitors have largely steered clear up to now of the political dispute between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu over funding the jail. But they wrote that Gusman needs to ask for money to hire more staff and that the city “needs to support reasonable, documented requests.”
The report says the Sheriff’s Office and the city “need to divest themselves of time-wasting struggles and diversions from the critical mission to not only achieve compliance, but to safely open the new jail.”
The monitors have said they expect to see drastic improvements in medical and mental health care after the Sheriff’s Office contracted in the fall with a third-party health care provider, Correct Care Solutions. But Wednesday’s report said jail officials have not yet “ensured constitutionally adequate treatment of prisoners’ medical needs.”
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