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Judge orders reopening of Orleans Parish Prison’s transport docks

26th October 2015   ·   0 Comments

A month after Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman shut down the Orleans Parish Prison transport facility used to move inmates to Orleans Parish Criminal Court, raising concerns about security and public safety, a federal judge has ordered the sheriff to reopen the facility.

FOX 8 News reported last week that since the old parish prison closed, more than 200 inmates a day have brought to court by bus and offloaded in the sally port. They are then escorted behind a makeshift fence into the old coroner’s office, then transferred through a court hallway and a courtroom in session. And they are closely guarded by sheriff’s deputies known at court as “the men in black.”

Orleans Criminal Court judges have voiced concerns about courthouse security after the closure of the old OPP and say the transported inmates are getting too close to courtroom personnel and to potential jurors.

The issue has become a major bone of contention between the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Landrieu administration, with each camp pointing fingers at the other and claiming the other is breaking the rules.

Sheriff Gusman said the Landrieu administration has dropped the ball by failing to adhere to an earlier agreement between OPSO and CNO officials, but added that he has a new plan to resolve the issue.

Judges have told us they are concerned about security,” said Simone Levine of Court Watch Nola told FOX 8.

On Thursday of last week, a federal judge stepped in to say that the old docks facility in the rear of the old OPP must be reopened this week despite staffing concerns expressed by the Sheriff’s Office.

“The judge has ordered that the city pay for the manpower we need in order to safely transport inmates through the old parish prison building and into court,” OPSO counsel James Williams told FOX 8.

“At the end of the day, the city pays for everything. It’s a matter of doing it the right way,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said.

Sources told FOX 8 News that securing the docks will require between 11 and 16 deputies. But they say it’s a much safer arrangement that won’t inconvenience at least one judge whose court has been used as a prisoner walkway.

However, the reopening of the old OPP transport facility is not expected to be a long-term solution, and the city is being required to explore other options.

As a permanent solution is sought, the legal wrangling continues.

“The sheriff doesn’t have the responsibility to build a replacement. The city has the responsibility to build that,” Williams told FOX 8.

“We’re not sure yet. We’re not finished our negotiations,” Landrieu said.

After testimony from NOPD Supt. Michael Harrison on Thursday, it doesn’t look like using NOPD officers to transfer OPP inmates will be an option.

“Superintendent Harrison testified about his concerns of doing that,” Williams told FOX 8..

Both the OPSO and the Landrieu administration expressed confidence that a more secure prisoner transport system would be in place by this week.

Landrieu wondered how the construction of a new jail did not include a new facility to transport inmates ito and from the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse and said all of these issues are part of ongoing negotiations between the two sides.

Prior to last week’s ruling, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that the interim transport system being used was anything but ideal.

“Once we closed OPP, the docks have been closed. We have been struggling ever since with different ways to transfer them in light of the fact that the city has not yet built or has not yet started plans to build a replacement to the docks,” Williams told WWL.

Gusman wants the city to build a new inmate holding facility with designated FEMA money. But Williams says the Landrieu administration continues to drag its heels.

Williams said the OPSO has submitted a federally approved request to Mayor Mitch Landrieu asking for more officers to assist the OPSO with current inmate transfers.

“Our staffing plan that’s been approved by the federal court would call for approximately 16 law enforcement officers to carry this out in a safe manner,” Williams said.

The OPSO requested that those additional officers and told WWL that the Landrieu administration was considering assigning some of its NOPD officers, plus a supervisor, to work eight-hour shifts at the docks handling inmate transfers.

For its part, the mayor’s office told WWL that it has already offered up $3.7 million in FEMA funding to OPSO for renovating the old OPP transport facility.

“We are eager to reach a master settlement with the Sheriff, similar to what was accomplished with the firefighters, so that we can resolve all of these issues related to the jail once and for all,” City of New Orleans Communications Director Sarah McLaughlin said in a statement prior to Thursday’s ruling. “The goal is have a right-sized, constitutional jail that makes our city safer without decimating city service.”

“This is another example of the impasse that exists between the city and the sheriff,” Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, told WWL.

Goyeneche said the solution is to build a new holding facility and that using NOPD officers to handle deputy responsibilities makes no sense.

“You just can’t pick people out and assign them to this type of duty. This is a different protocol than being a police officer. You can’t bring a gun into a jail facility or a Taser,” Goyeneche said.

WWL said it reached out to NOPD Supt. Michael Harrison to ask about the sheriff’s office request, and he responded with this statement: “Prisoner transportation is the sheriff’s responsibility. My top priority to put our officers on the street where we need them the most, and that’s what I will continue to do.”

This article originally published in the October 26, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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