The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge Monday to take control of the city’s jail away from Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, citing an “unacceptable” level of violence at the lockup despite three years of federal oversight.
Attorneys for the government and the MacArthur Justice Center asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to appoint an outside administrator, known as a receiver, to assume supervision of the facility, saying Gusman has shown a lack of leadership and proved incapable of improving the jail’s “unconstitutional” conditions.
The situation has become so dire, they said, that some inmates have resorted to harming themselves in order to be transferred away from the newly opened Orleans Justice Center.
“Urgent and extraordinary action is required of this court to address the immediate risk of harm and death to the men, women and youth in the jail,” the attorneys wrote in a voluminous filing. “Although there is no question that receivership is an extraordinary remedy, so, too, is the level of harm that continues to plague the jail, with no apparent end in sight.”
The government’s request, long viewed as a last resort, follows years of litigation over the city’s jail — a problem that has remained unresolved for decades despite numerous reform efforts.
The most recent overhaul attempt, the result of a class-action lawsuit filed by inmates, began about three years ago when Africk approved a sweeping federal consent decree, a blueprint for change that called for major changes in Sheriff’s Office policies and improved conditions for inmates.
The judge declared at the time that the now-shuttered Orleans Parish Prison had left an “indelible stain” on the community and presented a “public safety crisis.”
The Justice Department, which joined the inmates’ suit, was initially slow to publicly criticize the pace of progress and balked at the idea of appointing a receiver when Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed it in 2013. The department said it wanted to give the sheriff an opportunity to turn things around under the guidance of court-appointed monitors who regularly tour the facility and provide updates to Africk.
On Monday, though, the Justice Department, joined by the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents the inmates, argued that the sheriff has missed his chance and that a receiver is needed to implement the consent decree.
They warned Africk that inmates are being “left to fend for themselves for long periods of time” without the protection of deputies and that “it does not seem that the sheriff even knows how many staff actually are required to safely operate the jail.”
“The prisoners are taking control of the jail,” they wrote. “It is only a matter of time before more prisoners, or staff members, suffer serious injury or death.”
Several aspects of receivership remain unclear, including its price tag, in part because the move is exceedingly rare. A receiver would assume Gusman’s core responsibilities and enjoy “full authority to administer operations of the jail,” including the ability to discipline and promote jail employees and allocate jail budget funds, the government and inmates’ attorneys wrote.
“A receiver may not be able to operate the Orleans Parish jail at a cheaper daily cost,” they added. “But an independent entity — untethered from local politics and with the authority and goal of operating a constitutional jail without further unnecessary delay and foot-dragging — will conserve resources in the long run.”
Gusman would not be removed from office and likely would continue to oversee various other functions of the Sheriff’s Office, including its civil division. But the appointment of a receiver could fuel calls for his resignation.
“The Justice Department’s filing speaks for itself,” Hayne Rainey, a City Hall spokesman, said in a statement. “It is in the best interests of our taxpayers and our public safety that the jail is run competently and constitutionally.”
Gusman said late Monday that he “vigorously” disagrees with the request to appoint a receiver, even as he acknowledged “there is more work to be done” at the jail. He said the motion filed by the government “contains numerous inaccuracies and misleading statements.”
“I will aggressively defend the work of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and the progress being made,” he said in a statement.
The government’s request came weeks after a team of experts recommended that parts of the Orleans Justice Center, the city’s new jail, be closed down until Gusman can retrain its guards and get a handle on inmate attacks, which they said are occurring in large part because of a lack of supervision. The jail remains dangerously understaffed, and the sheriff has struggled to recruit new deputies, a predicament he has blamed on City Hall’s refusal to approve pay raises.
“If it were up to us, we would close the facility floor by floor until it can be successfully operated,” Susan McCampbell, the lead federal monitor for the jail, told Africk earlier this month.
At the same court hearing, Laura Coon, a Justice Department lawyer, hinted that the government had lost patience with Gusman and would be asking the judge to name a third party to bring the jail’s conditions in line with the Constitution.
She said the Justice Department and Sheriff’s Office were “not on the same page” as to what steps are needed to reform the jail.
Coon’s remarks followed testimony from a mental health expert who expressed grave concerns over a suicide at the jail last month in which Cleveland Tumblin, a 63-year-old bipolar inmate, hanged himself inside a shower facility. The expert said the shower door had been locked from the inside, a security risk that should have been eliminated before the building opened in September.
The government pointed to Tumblin’s death as an example of the “many flaws with the jail’s suicide prevention practices,” and it noted that Tumblin had not seen a mental health care provider even though his intake screening indicated he should receive an evaluation.
Monday’s request comes about three years after Landrieu made a similar request for Gusman to be removed from control of the jail. The mayor’s proposal, which failed to gain traction, followed the release of shocking videos depicting inmates using drugs in the jail and walking the streets when they were supposed to be locked up.
“Given the long and tortured history involving (Orleans Parish Prison), no consent decree, even as appropriately modified and tailored, will be effective unless the leadership changes,” Harry Rosenberg, an attorney for the city, wrote in an April 2013 court filing.
The sheriff’s attorneys countered that the jail had been neglected by city officials for more than 30 years. State law requires the city to pay for the operation of the lockup, but Gusman has long accused city leaders of underfunding his agency.
“To place the blame for the present situation on Sheriff Gusman, much less to suggest he should be stripped of virtually all powers and responsibilities of the office to which he was elected by the citizens of New Orleans, is patently wrong,” Freeman Matthews, a Gusman attorney, wrote at the time.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.