NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Justice Department asked a federal court to appoint a third party to operate the long-troubled New Orleans jail, saying new leadership is essential because the city's sheriff has for years failed to improve conditions that endanger inmates.
The government, which was joined in the filing Monday by lawyers for inmates, also sought to place Sheriff Marlin Gusman in contempt over what it called his noncompliance with overhauls mandated in a settlement agreement involving the jail and the Justice Department and inmates.
"Although there is no question that receivership is an extraordinary remedy, so too is the level of harm that continues to plague the jail, with no apparent end in sight," the Justice Department said.
Gusman, elected in 2004, did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment. He has repeatedly said he is making progress and faulted the city for not providing enough money. The city funds the jail. Gusman operates it.
The reaction from Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office, long at odds with Gusman over management at the jail, was brief and subdued. "The Justice Department's filing speaks for itself," the news release said. "It is in the best interests of our taxpayers and our public safety that the jail is run competently and constitutionally."
Inmates were moved from aging, deteriorating jail buildings to a new, more modern facility last September — a move that Gusman said would greatly contribute to reform. But a court-appointed monitor said in March that violence continues to be a problem and a recent inmate suicide brought renewed attention to the jail's troubles.
The proposed third party group would have the authority to run the jail, fire and promote jail employees, enter into contracts for jail services and decide how the budget should be spent, the Justice Department said.
"This is a sad day for our city and it's unfortunate that this had to happen," said Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney for inmates and co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. "The jail has been under federal scrutiny since 2008 and in that time there have been dozens of deaths and scandals and various lawsuits. The consent decree has been in place since 2012 and the sheriff clearly can't or won't fix the problems at the jail."
A March report from jail monitors said continued disagreements between Gusman and Landrieu's administration over jail funding and management are part of the problem. But it also cited a "negative internal culture" under Gusman's leadership.
"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.
The jail agreement was reached in 2012 and formally approved by a federal judge in 2013. Landrieu had objected, raising doubts about Gusman's ability to run the jail while noting that the city would have to cover the costs.
Prior to the judge's final approval, a series of hearings included testimony from inmate victims of violence and sexual abuse and the discovery of an inmate-made video — shown in court — displaying blatant intravenous drug use, drinking and the brandishing of a loaded gun. The video had been made in a section of the jail complex that had been closed by the time the hearing took place.
Gusman is a veteran of New Orleans politics who served on the City Council before he was elected sheriff. He was elected to his third term in 2014 despite the jail's notorious reputation for violence. But he has faced repeated bad political news recently. His chief deputy resigned earlier this month after an audit indicated the deputy spent time on duty working for a company that was paid $2 million to provide off-duty officers for private security.
In March, New Orleans pastors and an inmate advocacy group demanded Gusman's resignation, citing continued violence at the jail.
Tucker reported from Washington.