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Department of Justice threatens sheriff with lawsuit, ICE removes detainees

30th April 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

Last week saw further developments in the ongoing drama surrounding Orleans Parish Prison. On April 23, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division released a 21-page letter condemning the jail’s “deteriorating” conditions. The issues fall into four main areas: “Inadequate protection from violence and sexual assault,” “inadequate suicide prevention,” “inadequate mental health care and access to medical care” and inadequate services for people who are Limited English Proficient (LEP), the latter being a right guaranteed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.The letter went on to state “The conditions we found clearly meet both the subjective and objective components of the deliberate indifference test.”

The Executive Summary of the letter notes that gang rape and officer misconduct were reported during the DOJ’s inspection. Ad­ditionally, it underscored that at least five suicides since the DOJ issued a letter about the state of the jail in 2009 were likely the result of “grossly inadequate” suicide prevention measures.

Perhaps most seriously for Sheriff Gusman, the DOJ letter threatens the possibility of litigation. “It is largely incontestable that the deficiencies in the operation of OPP violate the Con­stitution. Rather than spend time, money and effort in contested litigation, we believe that everyone…will be best served by a negotiated resolution. But if you fail to immediately negotiate in good faith, we will be forced to consider whether litigation is appropriate.”

In spite of overwhelming evidence pointing to the veracity of the allegations in the DOJ letter, Sheriff Gusman’s office responded on April 24 with a letter that accuses the Department of Justice of “sensationaliz[ing],” saying that it is trying to “force” consent-decree negotiations on the Sheriff’s Office. Gusman also quoted Mayor Landrieu as calling the same process being conducted with the New Orleans Police Department “aggressive and contentious.” The Mayor’s Office did not respond to specific questions about this quote, the DOJ letter or the Sheriff’s response. It did provide an email statement that acknowledged the need to change the current per-diem funding structure for the jail and described the Mayor’s commitment to crime issues and criminal justice reform. “[W]e must have a jail that meets our needs,” the email states, “one that keeps our city safe, protects civil liberties, and operates in the best interest of Orleans Parish taxpayers.”

According to its letter, the De-partment of Justice sent a draft consent decree to Sheriff Gusman on November 8, 2011. A consent de-cree is a court-approved agreement that allows the parties to avoid litigation.

The day after Gusman’s rebuttal, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), removed all the detainees that it had housed at OPP, citing concerns raised by the Department of Homeland Security and recent Department of Justice reports, according to a statement released by regional spokesperson, Temle Black. “ICE suspended the use of OPP to house detainees on April 18 and is now using the St. Tammany Parish Jail. ICE removed four detainees from Orleans Parish Prison because of DHS concerns, coupled with DOJ reports, and elected to shift its detention operations to another location,” the statement said.

Monday’s DOJ letter notes that the 2010 census data indicates that roughly 10 percent of Orleans Parish residents (33,205 people) do not speak English at home. This figure raises serious concerns about inmates ability to communicate because of a lack of interpreting services, deputies proficient in a language other than English, and written forms that are only available in English.

Sheriff Gusman’s Office had no comment for The Louisiana Weekly when asked about the removal of ICE’s detainees.

The sheriff’s rebuttal to the DOJ letter included a reference to its 2010 accreditation by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), which is based in Chicago. According to this 2010 letter, the jail should be inspected by the NCCHC prior to October 2012.

This article was originally published in the April 30, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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