NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Inmates and staff at the New Orleans jail "remain in significant danger" at the violent lockup, court-appointed experts said Friday in a report that says reforms have stalled under Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
Issued less than two weeks after the jail's latest inmate suicide, the report says continued disagreements between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration over jail funding and management are part of the problem. But it also cited a "negative internal culture" at the jail, which is operated by the sheriff.
"The day-to-day crisis environment observed by the monitors in the agency's operations does not evidence a professional, competent, or informed leadership," said the report, issued by a team of monitors headed by corrections expert Susan McCampbell.
Problems persist despite the transfer of inmates last September from an aging complex of buildings in disrepair to a new $150 million facility. Staffing remains inadequate, while "unacceptable and under-reported levels" of inmate fights and use of force by staff continue, the report said.
McCampbell and the monitoring team were appointed as the result of an agreement Gusman reached in 2012 with inmate attorneys and the U.S. Justice Department to settle a lawsuit filed over jail conditions. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved the agreement, known as a consent decree, in 2013. It called for Gusman to provide adequate medical and mental health care for inmates while overhauling policies on use of force and rape prevention, among other reforms.
Court hearings leading up to Africk's approval included testimony from inmate victims of violence and sexual assault and the release of a video, apparently made by inmates, that showed prisoners drinking beer, gambling, brandishing a loaded handgun and using intravenous drugs. The video was taken in part of the old jail complex known as the House of Detention, which was shut down in 2012.
Gusman issued a statement saying progress has been made at the jail in the last year and that more policy and procedure updates have been developed since the monitors' last visit to the jail. He repeated calls for more money from the city, saying low staffing is a problem because of low wages.
"How can the OPSO (Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office) create a career development plan for our deputies, when these professionals are faced with salaries that are comparable to what they could make at a fast-food restaurant?" Gusman said.
He also said still more new housing space is needed for inmates.
"The taxpayers of this city have made historic investments of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in this brand new, state-of-the art jail and its administrative facilities, which the sheriff did not design correctly in the first place," city spokesman Hayne Rainey said in an email. "Additionally, we have more than doubled the annual operating budget for the jail to more than $60 million."
In 2013, Africk had turned back a city request to have an independent operator, or "receiver," appointed to run the jail in place of Gusman. An attorney for the city declined comment Friday when asked if that request would be revived.
A lead attorney for inmates reacted to Friday's report with strong criticism of Gusman. Katie Schwartzmann's statement noted last week's suicide by inmate Cleveland Tumblin, and said that four years after the agreement, the jail "remains a disaster."
"Sheriff Gusman has been in office for over a decade, so he can't blame the problems on the previous sheriff or Katrina," Schwartzmann said. "The city has almost fully funded his current budget requests, so the sheriff can't blame lack of funding."