An army of public officials and attorneys has been beavering away under court supervision for four years without making any discernible progress.
If taxpayers knew how much it is costing them, there’d be riots in the streets of New Orleans.
At issue is the consent decree under which Sheriff Marlin Gusman was supposed to alleviate hellish and highly hazardous conditions at the parish prison. Although he has since gotten a brand-new $150 million jailhouse, and announced the dawning of a “new day,” violence is still commonplace.
It is not clear how commonplace, given the administration’s propensity for cover-ups, but even Gusman does not recommend accommodations at the joint. He recently transferred hundreds of inmates to jails in other parishes for their own protection.
Since the consent decree is clearly broke, and has defied all attempts to fix it, taxpayers might figure a different approach would cut their losses. Lance Africk, the federal judge overseeing compliance with the consent decree, has noted he is getting “more and more frustrated with the slow pace” of an “overlawyered” proceeding.
The only other option would be pretty drastic — putting the prison in federal receivership. Mayor Mitch Landrieu got nowhere when he proposed that a couple of years ago, but the case for it grows stronger the longer the consent decree languishes. A protracted failure to implement promised changes is one requirement for a public institution to be placed in receivership, and nobody could deny that that has happened here.
Receiverships are rare, as they should be since they involve negating the will of the voters, and sidelining elected officials. Only extreme conditions can persuade a federal judge to put his own administrator in charge of a parish prison, and Africk certainly didn’t cotton to the idea two years ago. Still, if conditions are not extreme at the Orleans Parish slammer, that will be news to inmates and screws.
If Africk were to put his own administrators in charge of the prison, Gusman would still be sheriff, at least until the next election, but with hardly any work to do. It is not clear that he would notice any difference, to judge by his failure to improve what one of Africk’s monitors terms “very bleak” prison conditions.
Gusman maintains that all would be hunky-dory if his deputies were paid more. He appears to be alone in that view, but it matters not whether he is right or wrong. The sheriff lacks budgetary control over his own domain, because the city owns the prison, and he must go cap in hand to the mayor and the council. Such is Landrieu’s disdain for Gusman’s management of the prison that pay raises will not be approved any time soon.
Deputies make $33,000 after a year on the job, which is significantly less than a cop, but according to the Landrieu administration, is the going rate in the corrections business. Still, deputies frequently cite low pay when they quit, so maybe a raise would help the staffing shortage.
But, according to the monitors, the pay rate is only one of the reasons for the continuing chaos. Once deputies are hired, they aren’t given adequate “training or backup.” An attorney for the inmates who filed the suit that led to the consent decree blamed “a dysfunctional institutional culture at the highest levels of the Sheriff’s Office.”
The lawsuit was filed because the old jail was so violent, and so remiss in mental health care and other services, that inmates were deemed to have been denied their constitutional rights. If the consent decree has produced any improvement, it certainly hasn’t been anywhere near sufficient. In the first three months since the new prison was opened last fall, monitors discovered inmates committed acts of violence hundreds of times and contraband circulated freely. They knew of 16 suicide attempts, three sexual assaults and 29 hospitalizations. The monitors note that jail administrators have failed to report violent incidents and stymied internal investigations.
If taxpayers are growing impatient with this rigmarole over the consent decree, consider how it looks from inside the prison. Perhaps the threat of a receivership would encourage some action.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.