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Sheriff, DOJ come to an agreement on OPP reforms

17th December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

In a surprise announcement on December 11, the Department of Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) announced that they had agreed on measures to reform the city’s jail.

Three years ago, the Department of Justice (DOJ) notified Sheriff Gusman and city officials that conditions in the jail were unconstitutional, and it reiterated this position in the spring of 2012 before signing on as a co-plaintiff to a lawsuit that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed in April.

According to Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Roy Austin, more than 12 people have died in the jail since then. Although the agreement, a consent decree, has yet to be approved by a judge, the parties seemed confident that the process of reforming the jail will get underway in earnest.

“Under Louisiana law,” Austin told the assembly, “the city is required to pay the costs associated for incarcerating its prisoners. Based on Louisiana law, the city has not been meeting this obligation, and the prison has been dramatically underfunded for years.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Landrieu, Ryan Berni, told The Louisiana Weekly via email that “the City maintains its position that there has been no proof that any alleged unconstitutional conditions at the jail are the result of a lack of funding.” Berni also stressed that “a forensic accounting and staffing analysis and audit is underway to determine how the funds currently provided to the Sheriff are being used, whether the funds are being properly used, and whether the Sheriff has other revenue sources that will allow him to operate the jail constitutionally.”

During the press conference, Sheriff Gusman refused to acknowledge unacceptable levels of violence in the jail, but stated “the consent decree speaks for itself.”

The Sheriff, Schwartzmann and Austin all declined to put a figure on the cost of fully implementing the decree, stating that to make an accurate assessment they would have to consult the staffing analysis Berni mentioned. The City provided the Sheriff’s Office with nearly $23 million in 2012, according to figures provided by the Mayor’s Office.

A trial date has been set for April 4th on the matter of the jail’s funding. Currently, the Sheriff receives a “per-diem” sum of $22.39 for each day a locally-charged inmate occupies a bed. Critics have alleged that this provides a perverse incentive to hold people, and the Sheriff told those at the press conference that this formula is “outdated.”

Austin’s point was later underscored by the Sheriff, who told reporters that in recent years his staff has “experienced attrition at a rate of almost 40 percent.” Gusman attributed these losses to his office’s low pay scale, which he said lies 30 percent below other regional law enforcement organizations.

Speaking with reporters after the announcement, Katie Schwartz­mann, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) New Orleans office concurred on the essential nature of changes to deputy pay rates, training and staffing. “We understand right now from our clients that there are entire floors of the facility that are often completely unmanned, meaning there’s no deputy. So if you’ve got a tier of hundreds of guys with no deputy, there’s some real potential for some explosive problems,” Schwartzmann said.

Two of SPLC’s clients wrote statements about their experiences in the jail and the need for reform. Bryon Morgan, age 36, wrote that he was gang raped in a shower after being arrested in early October this year. “I am afraid to sleep because I have nightmares now. I am by no means a perfect person, but by coming forward I am trying to do right by everyone else who is locked up in this jail, or who will be locked up in the future,” Morgan’s statement reads.

Experiences such as this are part of the reason that Schwartzmann says conditions at the jail should matter to all New Orleanians. “Most people in the jail are pre-trial, which means they haven’t been convicted of any crime,” she said during the press conference, pointing out that most inmates are being held for low-level offenses and that they will be released back into the city’s communities. “If they experience brutalization, neglect in the jail, they come home more broken and damaged than they were when they went in,” she cautioned.

The agreement provides for changes across the board. Some of the reforms to be implemented include the separation of young inmates from adults; training and reporting changes around the use of force and restraints; supervision by an independent monitor; clear processes for prisoner grievances; interpreting and translating accommodations for Spanish-speaking inmates, and identification and monitoring of suicidal prisoners.

Asked what changes could be made before funds arrive from the city to implement the full scope of the agreement, Austin told reporters that the Sheriff would begin immediately informing his staff about the agreement and training them on it. The agreement also stipulates that within 120 days of the agreement’s judicial approval, the Sheriff’s Office will develop a database to track staff involved in use of force incidents and any related complaints. The Sheriff also agreed to a 90-day period to assess the staffing levels needed to properly care for prisoners’ mental health and to set up a system to monitor suicide risks.

This article was originally published in the December 17, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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