Orleans jail

The Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, La. Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Disagreeing with their own investigators, two federal judges said Thursday that progress has been made at the troubled New Orleans jail in the eight months since an appointed administrator took over its operation from Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

The judges said at a court hearing that despite two inmate suicides, a fatal overdose and a fiery riot since he arrived, the jail is improving under administrator Gary Maynard.

“Needless to say, 15-year-olds should not be hanging themselves in the jail. Nonetheless, we’re now on the right track to achieving a constitutional jail,” U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said.

Africk oversees reforms at the jail under the terms of a lawsuit brought by attorneys at the MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of the inmates held there. In 2013, he signed a sweeping settlement that was supposed to improve what he said were “horrific” conditions.

Progress at the jail has been halting, even after the opening of a gleaming new building in 2015. Inmates continue to attack each other and guards on a near-daily basis.

Last year, in a bid to end the rampant violence, Africk ordered Gusman to hand over day-to-day operations to a new compliance director.

Gusman — who was present at Thursday's hearing but did not speak — selected Maynard, the former corrections secretary for the state of Maryland.

The hope was that a newcomer could improve conditions where Gusman had proven unable or unwilling to do so. But in a report last month, federal monitors — watchdogs appointed by the judge to serve as his eyes and ears at the jail — said conditions have “regressed” since Maynard took office on Oct. 1.

That report cited the October suicide of Jaquin Thomas, a 15-year-old held on the jail’s youth tier, and the February death of an inmate from a cocaine overdose. Another inmate hanged himself in front of guards in his cell after the report’s release.

There also was an explosive outbreak of violence in a high-security tier at the jail in March. Inmates set fires and blockaded doors during an incident that Sheriff’s Office’s investigators later said had endangered lives.

Despite the recurrent violence, the judges overseeing the reform process expressed confidence in Maynard’s ability to fix the jail.

“Decades of neglect cannot be erased overnight. So while I wish it were otherwise, future tragedies and tears are inevitable … but a structure is finally starting to be put in place to address our shortfalls,” Africk said.

Magistrate Judge Michael North, who serves as Africk’s aide in the reform process, also issued an unusual rebuke of the court’s own monitors for their recent gloomy report.

“We are in a better place today vis-a-vis the jail than we’ve been in many, many years. In this regard, I simply do not believe that conditions in the jail have ‘regressed,’ ” North said.

The judges said Maynard has made progress in hiring new deputies and building new facilities to round out the existing complex.

Jail officials say that after hiring scores of new deputies, they are on track soon to bring back hundreds of inmates who have been stranded in far-flung parishes because of staffing shortages. They expect the inmates to be back in New Orleans by July.

In March, the Sheriff’s Office and the administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced an agreement on three new buildings. They plan to use millions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency money to renovate the “Docks,” a holding area for inmates at the Criminal District Court; to create an extension of the city’s juvenile jail; and to build a new jail wing for 89 adult inmates with mental health problems.

Landrieu and Gusman feuded for years over funding for new deputies and new buildings. But a city lawyer said Thursday that the arrival of Maynard has smoothed over many of their differences.

“Since Director Maynard has come on board, the level of direct communication between the city and the Sheriff’s Office has improved dramatically,” City Attorney Rebecca Dietz said.

Dietz said construction on the Docks is expected to start in November and finish in June 2018. The new 28-bed wing of the Youth Study Center is set to start construction in August and end a year later.

Meanwhile, the City Council has yet to approve the construction of the mental health wing of the adult jail. But Dietz said that project should take 24 to 40 months once its design is approved.

Despite the plaudits for Maynard, an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center said that firm remains concerned about the high level of suicides and violence at the jail.

“Deaths by suicide and serious attempts at self-harm continue in the jail. We believe our clients are currently at risk,” Emily Washington said. “Tiers in the jail continue to go unsupervised, even while almost half of the jail population has been held out of the parish.”

Maynard acknowledged that official statistics on jail attacks are “tainted” by many incidents that go unreported. He also said that progress in reducing violence has been slower than he expected.

Africk said he is pushing the Sheriff’s Office to do a better job of tracking attacks.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432