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Hearings resume over OPP consent decree

29th July 2013   ·   0 Comments

Hearings to determine who should foot the cost of reforms at Orleans Parish Prison resumed in federal court Wednesday, FOX 8 News reported.

Two accountants were called to testify about the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office budget.

Last month U.S. District Judge Lance Africk ruled that a consent decree is needed to oversee much-needed reforms at the jail.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit against Orleans Parish Prison, contending that prisoners were subjected to unconstitutional conditions.

When he approved the OPP consent decree in early June, Judge Africk rejected efforts by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to throw out the federal pact. Landrieu has said mismanagement by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is at the heart of the problems at the Orleans Parish Prison, and that the potentially expensive agreement could affect public safety by forcing the financially strapped city to cut services and even lay off police officers.

“The Court is well aware of New Orleans’ high homicide rate and budgetary constraints, but the evidence shows that violent crime is endemic within OPP as well,” Africk wrote. “OPP inmates, and particularly inmates with mental health issues, leave the facility more damaged, and perhaps more dangerous, than when they arrived.”

Africk also said in early June that no one was certain how much the consent decree would cost the Landrieu administration.

His ruling came weeks after a contentious hearing in which the city’s accusations of mismanagement by Gusman included release of an inmate-made video showing brazen drug use, gambling, beer drinking and the brandishing of a loaded handgun in a cell in a now-closed part of the jail complex. Inmates testified about sexual assaults and beatings at the hands of guards or other inmates. Prison experts said treatment for mental or physical conditions was badly lacking and that violent inmates were often mixed in with vulnerable ones, The Associated Press reported.

“The Court finds that the proposed consent judgment is the only way to overcome the years of stagnation that have permitted OPP to remain an indelible stain on the community, and it will ensure that OPP inmates are treated in a manner that does not offend contemporary notions of human decency,” Africk wrote.

The OPP consent decree, one of two federally mandated consent decrees the City of New Orleans must find the money to pay for, could come with an annual cost of $22 million and Sheriff Marlin Gusman says city government is responsible for paying for the prison improvements. but New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has insisted that Gusman has mismanaged the jail.

Gusman has countered by saying that OPP has been severely underfunded for years by the City of New Orleans for years and that it is in fact that long history of financial neglect that has led to the myriad of problems at the troubled jail.

Landrieu has argued that the City cannot afford to pay for two consent decrees and that residents may be forced to choose between city services and funding the two federally mandated consent decrees. He also suggested that plans to overhaul Orleans Parish Prison could be scaled back as a cost-cutting measure and has asked the Feds to take receivership of OPP until the changes have been made to ensure that the funds earmarked for the project are used as intended.

On at least one occasion, U.S. Judge Lance Africk has told Landrieu and Gusman to put aside their differences and find a way to implement the federally mandated jail reforms.

On Wednesday morning, one accountant for Orleans Parish Prison told Judge Africk that legal expenses for the prison amounted to more than $2 million in 2012 and could cost $4 million for this year, FOX 8 News reported.

“The jail ought to be a safe place,” Landrieu told FOX 8 News in a previous interview. “The sheriff is the keeper of the jail. He has the power and the authority and the responsibility of running that jail appropriately and we’ve been very strong in our statements about the fact that he should do that.”

“I think the mayor has been engaging in this criticism because of failure to do his job,” Gusman shot back.

Gusman added that the mayor’s job “is to make sure the city properly funds this facility.”

Katie Schwartzmann, Louisiana director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the OPP inmates in the consent decree, told recently that the recent rash of violence at OPP underscores the need for drastic and immediate changes at the troubled prison.

“The reforms cannot come soon enough for the people in there,” Schwartzmann said. “The volume of calls we get out of the jail and severity of injuries —it’s obvious that people’s lives are really on the line.”

A final hearing on this issue is expected to be held on August 8.

This article originally published in the July 29, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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