Sheriff Marlin Gusman, facing potential sanctions over the stubbornly bad conditions at Orleans Parish Prison, has struck a short-term deal with inmate advocates and the U.S. Justice Department that is intended to speed up a broader series of court-ordered reforms.
The agreement, filed Friday in U.S. District Court, calls for increased accountability on Gusman’s part, with the sheriff or one of his deputies required to provide monthly updates to a federal judge, in open court, on ongoing efforts to improve conditions for inmates.
It also outlines an array of directives Gusman must give his deputies about documenting inmate violence and their own use of force within the jail.
If approved by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, the judge overseeing the jail reforms, the deal further would require the Sheriff’s Office to retrain “all investigative personnel” by Feb. 3 on the basics of corrections investigations and other matters, including internal affairs inquiries.
Deputies assigned to supervise mentally ill inmates would receive fresh instruction on so-called de-escalation techniques and working with special inmate populations.
Katie Schwartzmann, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney whose class-action lawsuit resulted in the plan for jail reform, known as a federal consent decree, said she hopes the framework of the short-term agreement “will expedite the implementation of essential reforms to improve the jail and the safety of our whole community.”
The Sheriff’s Office “has taken some steps forward,” Schwartzmann said in a written statement, “but, unfortunately, conditions have not improved for the men, women and kids in the jail.” The jail, she added, remains “extremely dangerous” for inmates and staff.
The plaintiffs in the jail litigation sent Gusman a letter in August warning they planned to ask Africk to hold the sheriff in contempt for failing to meet the terms of the consent decree. Friday’s deal at least temporarily ends that threat, with the plaintiffs agreeing not to seek immediate penalties against the sheriff as long as he holds up his end of the agreement.
One recurring issue that has slowed progress at the jail is the lack of clear policies spelling out for deputies how to translate the legal language of the consent decree into actual changes in jail conditions. The short-term agreement stresses the importance of those policies and sets forth new deadlines by which the Sheriff’s Office must complete draft policies.
The agreement also is intended to improve the flow of information from the jail. It says deputies must alert the consent decree monitor — a corrections expert appointed by the court to supervise the jail’s progress — within 24 hours of any deaths, attempted suicides or assaults occurring at OPP.
The Sheriff’s Office also will have to assign a deputy on each shift to work “specifically and exclusively on the youth tier” of the jail, a particularly troubled part of OPP that houses juveniles being prosecuted as adults.
On a more mundane level, the Sheriff’s Office agreed to ensure by Jan. 30 that the jail has an “adequate stock of toilet paper, soap and feminine hygiene items to handle the volume of prisoners passing through OPP.”
The Sheriff’s Office is preparing to move inmates into a new 1,438-bed jail, but its opening has been delayed for months by construction issues and, more recently, a lack of manpower to safely staff the facility.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.