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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Justice Department and the sheriff who runs New Orleans' only jail agreed Tuesday on a series of court-supervised reforms designed to improve conditions at the troubled facility, but funding for the proposed settlement remains an obstacle.
The agreement, in the form of a federal consent decree, calls for Sheriff Marlin Gusman to implement a series of reforms, including providing adequate medical and mental health care and overhauling policies governing use of force and rape prevention.
"This agreement is the sheriff's roadmap for prison management, and we believe that he will immediately use his best efforts to comply," said Justice Department attorney Roy Austin. But the city, which funds the jail, also is a defendant in a class-action lawsuit that would be resolved by a settlement. And the city isn't part of the Justice Department's deal with Gusman. City officials said in October that Gusman had requested nearly $40 million, an amount they said would have a crippling effect on the city's operations.
Austin said many critical reforms can't begin until the city increases funding for jail operations. He called on the city to publicly release a report on jail staffing it recently completed and immediately allocate emergency funding to address jail staffing deficiencies.
"People will needlessly suffer at the prison each day that we are unable to fully implement this agreement," Austin said. "Reform must start immediately, before other prisoners face physical and sexual assault, untreated illness or other abuse."
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu didn't immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment. After the Southern Poverty Law Center sued over jail conditions in April, the Justice Department intervened in the class-action suit. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk has overseen the settlement negotiations and would have to approve the agreement.
Gusman said the deal represents a "significant next step in our journey to create one of the best public-safety operations in the country." "Reaching our goals requires proper funding, not turning our heads and hoping the problem will go away," he said. "We have done our best to cut our own costs, but those financial cuts have come at a cost to our deputies and our staff." Earlier this year, the Justice Department's civil rights division reached a separate settlement agreement designed to reform the city's equally troubled police department.
A different judge hasn't ruled yet on approving that deal. Gusman wouldn't specify how much be believes it will cost to implement the reforms spelled out in the jail's consent decree, which also calls for improvements in sanitation and fire safety and for the appointment of an independent monitor who will periodically inspect the jail. Austin said state law requires the city to pay the costs associated with incarcerating its prisoners.
"Based on Louisiana law, the city has not been meeting this obligation, and the prison has been dramatically underfunded for years," he said. Last April, the Justice Department said it found "alarming conditions" during an inspection of the jail and uncovered persistently high rates of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and staff misconduct.
In a letter to Gusman that month, a department official said the jail is a "violent and dangerous institution" and accused jail officials of failing to take basic steps to correct "systemic issues" and "serious constitutional violations" identified in a 2009 report by the department.
That report concluded the jail is understaffed and doesn't adequately protect inmates from physical abuse. Earlier this year, Gusman closed a facility that held more than 600 prisoners and transferred hundreds of state and parish inmates to prisons and jails outside New Orleans. At the time, Gusman said growing criticism about prison conditions was a factor in the decision to close its House of Detention to inmate housing.
The sheriff's office is building a new facility with more than 1,400 inmate beds. It's expected to be completed in 2014. The jail's facilities currently house a total of more than 2,300 prisoners. The Southern Poverty Law Center's suit accused jail officials of leaving prisoners vulnerable to sexual assaults and beatings and failing to provide adequate mental health care.
"We brought this lawsuit because the jail is a dangerous place," said Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney for the center. "The men, women and children who are incarcerated there have witnessed and survived terrible things."
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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