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Federal Judge Expresses Frustration in New Orleans Jail Reform Litigation

The fight to reform unconstitutional conditions at the New Orleans parish jail in Louisiana has resulted in litigation, a 2013 consent decree and the construction of a new facility. The consent decree stemmed from a federal lawsuit filed by detainees at the jail, who are now represented by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.

As a result of the suit, U.S. District Court Judge Lance M. Africk assumed oversight over operations at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) and forced Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman to appoint a new compliance director. Susan McCampbell, the lead monitor at the troubled facility, cited progress in June 2017, saying she saw “a light at the end of this tunnel.”

PLN has previously reported on the longstanding battle between Sheriff Gusman and city leaders over how to resolve unconstitutional conditions of confinement at OPP. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.16; June 2014, p.44]. The facility has been under a consent decree for the past four years that includes provisions to make the jail safer for both prisoners and guards. A major obstacle has been insufficient funding by the city.

Sheriff Gusman dreamed of a new building equipped with an additional 380 beds, a medical clinic and mental health facilities. But New Orleans officials did not want to increase his budget to provide for the jail’s construction, charging he had inadequately used the funds already provided.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC), said jail reform had been stalled due to the political battle between the Sheriff’s Office and city leaders.

“The sheriff has repeatedly called for more resources, but it hasn’t been granted,” he stated.

Gusman experienced difficulty at the new $145 million Orleans Parish jail soon after it opened in September 2015. During its first three months of operation there were 216 assaults on staff and prisoners. Judge Africk was clearly upset.

“I just don’t know how I can make it any clearer,” he said at the time. “I’m starting to get more and more frustrated with the slow pace.”

Consequently, the judge later ordered Gusman to cede operational control of the new jail, announcing in June 2016 that broad powers over the facility would be given to a compliance director that Gusman could chose from a slate of candidates.

In August 2016, Gusman appointed Gary D. Maynard as OPP’s new compliance director. “The compliance director is the conduit that can gain access to the financial and operational resources that the sheriff’s office has been denied for years,” the sheriff announced.

Maynard came from a seven-year tenure with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He was given final authority over the jail and its finances, but also had to seek Gusman’s advice on decisions that impact the facility. His position was to last for at least nine months or as long as it took for OPP to come into compliance with the consent decree.

Goyeneche expected the new compliance director to be able to clear that hurdle.

“[T]his is an independent outside expert that’s coming in. When he says they need more resources to be able to recruit and retain more deputies and that means more pay, when he says that we have inadequate facilities to deal with the medical and mental health inmates, I think that that voice is what’s been lacking,” Goyeneche stated.

Judge Africk said Maynard had informed him, after making his initial assessment of the jail, that he had seen all of the problems at OPP before – “just never all in the same place at the same time.” 

Seven months later, in June 2017, the safety of prisoners, drafting of written policies, suicide prevention, staffing and supervision, and prisoner health care remained top priorities that required improvement, according to MacArthur Justice Center attorney Emily Washington.

Despite some reforms, including major improvements in communication among the parties, Africk said all the stakeholders agreed that conditions at the jail were not yet to the point where prisoners were “safe and secure” from the possibility of violence.

“We have a lot of work to do,” the judge noted. 

In a May 2017 report, Susan McCampbell and a team of expert jail monitors said conditions at the facility were “regressing.” However, she added the monitors did anticipate “forward progress.”

Assaults at the jail had dropped 10 percent in the seven months after Maynard took over, according to the compliance director, which he said was not as significant a drop as he wanted to achieve. Any level of violence, he added, was unacceptable. Washington noted that she, too, had concerns about the safety and supervision of prisoners even as about half the population was being housed in out-of-parish jails while dozens of OPP staff members underwent Peace Officer Standards Training (POST).

POST certification is designed to better prepare jail staff for their jobs and make them eligible for a pay raise, Maynard said when he first proposed the plan. Every deputy in the Sheriff’s Office who receives POST certification becomes eligible for a $6,000 annual salary increase though Louisiana’s supplemental pay program for law enforcement officers. The stipend is funded by the state, so it does not dip into the City of New Orleans’ coffers.

Maynard also made a recommendation on how to handle prisoners with mental health problems; he proposed building a new 89-bed jail unit, referred to as Phase III, which would house the facility’s mental health population as well as a medical clinic and laundry. McCampbell said she was “very thankful” to Maynard and the Sheriff’s Office for moving forward with the Phase III plan.

The plan, however, faced strong opposition from community members who objected to any expansion of the jail in a city that has been working for years to shed its reputation as having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. OPP’s population has shrunk from 6,000 prisoners in 2005 to a little less than 1,600 in 2017. But if New Orleans’ current jail population was in line with the national average just 925 people would be incarcerated, said Jon Wool with the Vera Institute of Justice.

The Vera Institute is a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice policy and practice reforms, with offices in New Orleans and three other cities.

Some opponents of Phase III also contended that prisoners with mental health problems would receive better treatment outside the justice system. Resources that would be put towards a mental health unit at the jail should be spent on community-based mental health programs, observed Janet Hays, president of Healing Minds NOLA. 

Nevertheless, Judge Africk agreed that Phase III should proceed, and cited progress in the case due to improved communication between the Sheriff’s Office, the federal court, the monitors, the city of New Orleans, the plaintiffs and other interested parties. See: Jones v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00859-LMA-ALC.

In June 2017, several hundred New Orleans prisoners who had been sent to other parishes while jail staff underwent POST training began returning to OPP. Maynard’s most recent status report on the initial remedial action plan at the jail was filed with the federal court on November 1, 2017. 

Sources: Times-Picayune, WDSU

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Related legal case

Jones v. Gusman