NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Citing a history of inmate deaths, sexual assaults, beatings, stabbings and poor medical care at the New Orleans jail, a federal judge on Thursday approved an agreement between the U.S. Justice Department and the city's sheriff aimed at reforming the notoriously dangerous lockup.
In approving the agreement, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk rejected efforts by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration to squelch the 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 that nobody knows how much the consent decree will cost. Financial issues are to be discussed at a hearing next week.
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 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 agreement, known as a consent decree, calls for Gusman to provide adequate medical and mental health care and overhaul policies on use of force and rape prevention, among other reforms that are expected to require more money for personnel. The sheriff, even while downplaying problems at the jail, said the agreement will aid reform, and he said the city inadequately funds the jail.
The agreement was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of inmates in April of last year. The Justice Department later intervened in the class-action suit. The announcement of the consent decree in December raised immediate concern from city officials.
Months earlier, Landrieu's administration had reached a long-sought agreement with the Justice Department for reforms at the New Orleans Police Department, plagued by years of allegations of brutality and biased policing. Landrieu hailed that agreement as a needed reform in July 2012. But, by January he was trying to put the brakes on it, saying the city could be forced into painful personnel or service cuts if it's forced to fund the police pact and the separate jail reform consent decree.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan approved the police pact despite the city's objections.
The police reforms could cost in the neighborhood of $50 million over the coming years. In opposing the separate jail agreement, the Landrieu administration cites court filings indicating it could add $22 million annually to the $30.5 million the city already turns over to Gusman.
Africk's ruling was the second legal setback for Landrieu this week in the battles over criminal justice reform. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court refused to delay implementation of the police agreement pending the city's appeal.
In a related development Friday, the city's inspector general released a report calling for reforms in jail funding, touching on issues likely to be discussed in court next week. The report was critical of some Sheriff's Office accounting.
"OPSO aggregated both revenues and expenditures into categories that did not correspond to specific revenue sources or to Jail expenditures, which made it impossible to connect the City's Jail funding to Jail services and operations," the report from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said. "As a result, inspectors were unable to determine whether City monies allocated to OPSO in 2011 appropriately funded only the facilities and services the City was obligated to fund ...."
The report also compared spending on the Orleans Parish Prison to a comparable jail in Louisville, Ky.
"The benchmark analysis revealed that in 2011 New Orleans's Jail appeared to be adequately funded when compared to the benchmark jail and that OPSO expenditures in total and in certain categories were significantly greater than those for the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections."
Landrieu seized on that report in a statement about Africk's ruling, and he repeated his contention that Gusman should no longer run the jail. "The only way to fix the conditions and operations at the jail is to put a federal receiver in place that will run a safe and secure jail in a financially responsible way," Landrieu said.
Gusman, the Justice Department and the SPLC all hailed the agreement.
"Today's ruling enhances the possibility that the OPSO will be properly funded after years of delays," Gusman's statement said. He did not immediately address the IG report.