The U.S. Justice Department has offered a blueprint for its proposed takeover of the city’s jail, insisting an outside official be afforded unfettered authority over hiring decisions, even calling the shots about how the chain of command is structured within the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The government, joined by attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center, filed court papers this week sketching out the contours of federal receivership — a plan that, if approved by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, would turn Sheriff Marlin Gusman into a figurehead for perhaps the remainder of his term.
Africk will hold an evidentiary hearing Wednesday to decide whether the sheriff should be given more time to improve conditions at the jail, which remains dangerously understaffed and plagued by violence, despite three years of federal oversight.
The Justice Department last month asked the judge to take the extraordinary step of removing Gusman from day-to-day operations at the Orleans Justice Center, the $150 million jail that opened in September. The sheriff would be excluded from virtually every aspect of his job that involves the jail, from managing contracts to overseeing off-duty deputy details.
“The receiver must have the ability to designate the organizational structure and chains of command within the jail,” lawyers for the government and MacArthur Justice Center wrote in court papers. “New positions may need to be created, while departmental reorganization could eliminate the need for other positions.”
Gusman opposes the government’s request — he has referred to it as an attempted “coup” — and has blamed the lockup’s dysfunction on inadequate funding from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
The Justice Department contends that conditions at the jail amount to a violation of the constitutional rights of inmates and that the appointment of a receiver represents the fastest and most efficient means of righting the ship.
The government offered few specifics when it first petitioned Africk last month to sideline the sheriff, in part because receivership is exceedingly rare for local jails. Its new filings paint a clearer, if preliminary, picture of how a receiver might try to clean up the jail and implement the consent decree Gusman signed with the government three years ago.
The decree, which remains largely unfulfilled, according to federal monitors, outlined sweeping policy changes regarding the treatment of inmates.
Under the government’s proposal, the receiver would be tasked, within three months of appointment, with drafting a “remedial action plan,” a road map to compliance that also would seek to explain the repeated setbacks the Sheriff’s Office has faced. Built into this plan is an ambitious “presumption” that the bulk of the jail reforms can be satisfied within a year.
Among the most critical questions is how the appointment of a receiver would affect the long-running dispute over the jail’s funding. The Landrieu administration for years has accused Gusman of profligate spending, and it has declined to approve pay raises for the deputies staffing the jail — a bitter point of contention that Gusman claims has hampered his recruiting efforts.
The government suggested the receiver be responsible for filing an annual jail budget “that considers input from all parties,” including a team of corrections experts monitoring the jail’s progress. The receiver would testify before the City Council and work with city leaders to maximize cost savings and “implement financial oversight measures.”
For its part, the Landrieu administration said “a cooperative approach to financial administration between the receiver and the city will result in sound fiscal management, reduced need for court intervention, as well as long-term sustainability for the jail.”
Landrieu first suggested a federal takeover of the jail three years ago and has supported the Justice Department’s bid.
The government’s push calls for “robust community involvement” in the receivership, including the creation of a jail advisory board and quarterly public meetings that would “allow access to the receiver by affected people and interested members of the New Orleans community.”
The Justice Department and MacArthur Justice Center want to conduct a national search for a receiver, a process that could take months.
The Landrieu administration, which under state law must pay for the care of local inmates, has suggested appointing an interim receiver in the meantime, saying local inmates “do not have the luxury of waiting months for change to occur.”
The Sheriff’s Office declined to weigh in on the logistics of receivership, saying it “believes strongly and intends to prove at the evidentiary hearing that a receiver is not appropriate under the circumstances.”
Attorneys for the sheriff and the city have filed a flurry of court papers in preparation for next week’s showdown in U.S. District Court — the culmination of litigation that began four years ago when a group of inmates filed suit over the conditions at the now-shuttered Orleans Parish Prison.
Among other issues, Gusman’s lawyers have been tussling with City Hall over whether Landrieu should be compelled to testify about his administration’s alleged failure to pay for a “good and sufficient jail in accordance with Louisiana law.” The sheriff’s attorneys described the mayor as “a key witness that will offer a great volume of valuable testimony.”
The feds and the city have sought to keep the focus on Gusman’s management of a jail so chronically short-staffed that hundreds of local inmates have been transferred to detention facilities in other parishes. City attorneys said the sheriff’s attempt to call the mayor to the stand “is all about politics” and that Gusman is hoping “a brutal cross-examination of the mayor on systemic failures will deflect and dilute” the negative publicity.
“It is critical to remember that the sheriff is on trial for contempt, not the city and certainly not the mayor,” they wrote in a court filing. “This court should refuse to waste time at the already full hearing with a political sideshow.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.