City of New Orleans in court over jail pact

Sheriff Marlin Gusman at OPP (File)
Sheriff Marlin Gusman at OPP (File)
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A former New Orleans jail inmate's account of an hours-long beating and sexual assault opened a federal court hearing Monday on proposed reforms at the facility.

The reforms are embodied in an agreement between Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs the jail, and the U.S. Justice Department, which joined a lawsuit filed by inmates.

Nobody at the hearing disputed the need for reforms to better protect inmates. However, the city of New Orleans, which funds the jail, is hoping to put the brakes on approval of the agreement, saying it could cost the city tens of millions of dollars, force city employee furloughs and layoffs, and undermine the city's own separate agreement with the Justice Department to reform the Police Department.

"The consent decree could adversely affect the other 370,000-plus residents of New Orleans," Harry Rosenberg, an attorney for the city, told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.

The Justice Department and attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center urged approval and began calling a series of witnesses to establish that the jail, formally known as the Orleans Parish Prison, is unsafe, understaffed and plagued by fights, stabbings and sexual attacks.

"Violence from the streets taken to the jailhouse," is the way the first witness, a convicted armed robber and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, put it. He described one night in the jail when he was approached by more than a dozen others, hogtied with strips of inmate clothing, beaten with a mop handle and a mop bucket, and sexually violated. He said it went on for hours after his jail tier was locked down for the night.

"What happened to me, I don't want it to happen to nobody else," he said when asked why he took part in the lawsuit and testified.

Prison consultant Jeffery Scwhartz said the New Orleans lockup was among the nation's worst. He said operations under Gusman - including lack of training and adherence to policies - are a big part of the problem. He said complaints about mistreatment by guards often go uninvestigated and inmates are often pressured not to pursue such complaints.

But understaffing also is a major problem. He said that, at times, one guard is in charge of overseeing four times the area he or she should be.

Last week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called an emergency meeting of the City Council to outline cuts that might be needed if the jail consent decree is approved, citing estimates in a court filing that the agreement would require as much as $22 million in new expenses.

A separate agreement that the city and the Justice Department reached last year to reform the Police Department has already been approved and the city estimates it will cost $55 million over the coming years - including $7 million budgeted this year.

Landrieu's administration is trying to get out of the police agreement, claiming it was kept in the dark about the separate jail negotiations and that it has already begun making major improvements to the police department.

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