NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Lawyers for New Orleans' sheriff say a federal move to strip him of his authority to run the city's jail amounts to an illegal coup attempt.
U.S. Justice Department attorneys and lawyers for inmates last month filed a motion seeking to have a third-party "receiver" run the jail, which has long been plagued by inmate violence. Officials for the city of New Orleans, which funds the jail, are supporting the motion, which also seeks to have Sheriff Marlin Gusman ruled in contempt for failing to implement court-ordered reforms.
Gusman's lawyers answered in a court filing late Tuesday, blasting the attempt as a move to illegally thwart the will of voters who elected him.
"Thankfully, the law provides careful safeguards against such coups," Gusman's lawyers wrote.
Gusman was first elected in 2004 to fill an unexpired term and has been elected three times since — most recently in 2014.
Tuesday's 22-page court document reads in part like a brief history of the long-troubled jail while attempting to make the case that Gusman has taken major steps to improve conditions since taking office. It says he has had too little time and too little financial support from the city to fully implement reforms called for in a lawsuit settlement agreement, or consent decree, signed in late 2012 and approved by a judge in 2013.
It touches on decades of court action dating back to 1969. It says Gusman, after winning election in 2004, began taking steps to reduce the inmate population and improve jail buildings, adding that Hurricane Katrina the following year was a major setback, damaging already decaying structures.
Prisoners were moved to a new jail last September, a move Gusman has touted as key to increasing security and reducing violence. But a court-appointed monitor said in March that violence continues to be a problem. A recent inmate suicide brought renewed attention to the jail's troubles.
Tuesday's filing said the new building is designed for new methods of supervision to which Gusman's staff must adapt. It also reiterates his call for more money from the city to hire and train personnel.
"Understandably, OPSO cannot be reasonably expected to make substantial progress towards compliance with the consent decree without the funding to implement those reforms," the document says.
Gusman's lawyers last week said in court papers that the sheriff's office planned to move 600 inmates out of the new jail to other jurisdictions, mostly to a facility in northeast Louisiana's East Carroll Parish, in an attempt to reduce violence at the jail. Hundreds had already moved in recent months amid arguments between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration over whether the city should provide still more jail space.
Moving 600 would reduce the population at the jail building to around 530. Gusman said in an interview Wednesday he has moved about 140 since that filing, as he works to assure that the inmates have adequate time to meet with lawyers and are on hand to attend their scheduled court dates.
"It's not like I could just load up 600 people and say see you later," he said. The jail population as of Wednesday morning was about 920.