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Gusman, DOJ settle receivership battle over jail

28th June 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

After just six full days of an extraordinary hearing in federal court, the United States Department of Justice and Sheriff Marlin Gusman have reached a compromise over who is to control day-to-day operations of the local jail in New Orleans.

The deal, outlined in the pages of a settlement released to the public on Tuesday (June 21), allows the sheriff to avoid permanently handing the keys to a federal receiver, which would have thrust him onto the sidelines while someone else took over at the helm.

It also allowed the embattled leader to avoid testifying on the stand about numerous infractions reported at the jail in the nine months since Orleans Parish inmates moved into the newly built, $145 million facility.

The settlement does, however, delegate “final authority” to an independent administrator, called a “compliance director,” who will take over operations of the jail until it fully meets with federal guidelines mandated by a consent decree issued in 2013.

When announcing the settlement in federal court last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk praised the negotiation, describing it as “a collaborative” effort by Gusman, the Department of Justice, the City of New Orleans and lawyers for a group of inmates who filed suit in 2012 over what they called “deplorable” conditions at the city lockup.

It comes after “countless meetings and telephone conferences,” Africk said, in which there were “numerous disputes between parties resolved by court that should have been resolved by parties” in the first place.

The settlement allows Gusman to choose a compliance director from two or three candidates who will be nominated by the U.S. Justice Department, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the civil rights law firm representing inmates who filed suit.

Once Gusman picks a final candidate from that pool, a federal judge has to approve the choice. At that point, the newly appointed compliance director – who is expected to get a salary between $150,000 and $250,000 – will have 90 days to come up with an entire action plan on how to reform the jail.

Ultimately, he or she will be in charge of all operations at the jail, including oversight of all policies, personnel and budget. According to the Department of Justice, a key focus will be on reducing jail violence and prisoner suicide.

Already, attorneys at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center have put out an application for the job, and are actively searching for candidates, according to staff attorney Katie Schwartzmann. She added that they expect to have their choices narrowed within 45 days.

After last week’s status conference, held in Africk’s chambers in federal court, Gusman also praised the negotiation during a press conference. With the support of several religious leaders and the city’s district attorney, Gusman painted the negotiation as a continued effort of the hard work and “good faith effort” his staff had made towards reaching compliance with federal mandates issued three years earlier.

“We entered these proceedings to prove that the hardworking men and women of the sheriff’s office have created the most humane system of incarceration in the history of Orleans Parish and that we are making progress toward an even safer Orleans Parish Justice Complex,” Gusman said, adding that he’s implemented “direct supervision” policies and has more than 950 cameras to assist deputies. “We have fundamentally changed how we oversee inmates in our custody.”

He also described the new position as a sort of victory for his office, saying that the director “must” seek his advice and approval on decisions, and that the new person will serve as a financial liaison with the city and the court. He spoke of a consent budget, which he said would ultimately help him reach full compliance with court-ordered mandates should it be approved by New Orleans City Council.

Among the first order of business, Gusman said, will be to seek better pay for his deputies. He had long argued that $12 an hour — a significant bump from the $6.50 the position used to pay – is still too little for anyone in that position to take home.

He also, again, brought up the issue of a third facility for the jail, which he has for years said is needed to house inmates with mental illnesses and special needs – an undertaking that could cost upwards of $60 million.

Speaking at the press conference, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro reinforced the notion that Gusman would be collaborating with the new compliance director on refreshing a budget for a jail that had long been in need of upgrade.

The director, Cannizzaro said, would be a “direct pipeline” to the federal system, and could tell the judge “just of the needs and concerns that he has” to get more money – a development he called “important” and “significant.”

“Finding common ground was always the best possible outcome,” said Rep. Richmond in a statement issued following the announcement of the settlement.

“Continuing a long and costly receivership process would have been harmful to the Sheriff’s office and the city as a whole. Now that both sides have reached an agreement the focus can shift back to ensuring that conditions at the Orleans Justice Center are compliant with the requirements of the consent decree. I will remain engaged with the Sheriff’s office and the Department of Justice so that we continue to make progress and ultimately resolve all remaining issues,” Richmond said.

Lawyers for inmates who filed suit and the Department of Justice, however, had different view of what this new compliance director position meant for the jail, as they expressed in court and in press releases issued after the deal was made.

Since the Orleans Justice Center opened last September, lawyers have long cited “immediate risk of harm and death to the men, women and youth” being housed there, with reports of widespread violence that included sexual assaults, denial of mental health services and suicide hazards.

And in court proceedings leading up to the final settlement, federal monitors had said that there was actually “regression” away from some of the court-ordered mandates for reform, following a consent decree issued in 2013.

Last Tuesday’s court order reiterated that line of thinking, and found the sheriff was in non-compliance with several of the consent judgment’s provisions – including prisoner supervision, suicide prevention, use of force, incident reporting and tracking, prisoner grievances and investigations.

Thus, according to MacArthur Justice Center, the new change in leadership marks a “critical” step toward speeding reform at the jail. Lawyers underscored the broad range of power that director would have – including “final authority” over all operations at the jail, and the ability to hire, fire and reassign any personnel in any section.

“The Orleans Parish jail remains in dire need of a complete overhaul, including personnel, policies, and institutional culture,” the center issued in a press release.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu also pushed back on some of Gusman’s claims, including the assertion that the sheriff was in dire need of more city funds to meet Constitutional standards.

“In 2010, the Sheriff had submitted plans for a massive, completely unjustifiable 5,800-bed jail complex, 700 percent larger than the national average. As a city we said ‘no,’” Landrieu said in a statement. “Today, we are not only right sizing the jail, but we have invested more to ensure there is better care. Taxpayers have made a historic investment of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to build a brand new, state-of-the-art jail and its administrative facilities. At the same time, the City has more doubled the Sheriff’s annual operating budget.”

The mayor remained hopeful, however, that once the Constitu-tional mandates were met, the results would be “transformative.”

“This is a major step forward for our city,” Landrieu said. “With this settlement and our ability to move forward with right-sizing and making our jail safer and more secure, our criminal justice system will be undergoing a complete overhaul.”

On last Tuesday, Africk, too, underscored the importance behind meeting the court-ordered mandates.

“The way we treat our incarcerated citizens has a significant impact on public safety,” Africk said. “The Constitution does not require a comfortable jail, but neither does it permit an inhumane one.”

This article originally published in the June 27, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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