Fight over New Orleans jail reform funds to resume

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The legal tussle over the costs of reforming the notoriously dangerous New Orleans jail is about to resume in a federal courtroom, where lawyers are expected to press the case that the sheriff doesn’t need more money from the city to implement court-ordered improvements aimed at ending violence, poor security and inadequate health care.

A hearing set for Wednesday in U.S. District Judge Lance Africk’s courtroom is a continuation of proceedings last month during which the city’s lawyer in the case, Harry Rosenberg, questioned Sheriff Marlin Gusman for hours about jail expenses, including a roughly $1.7 million annual expense on outside legal fees for one firm — an arrangement Gusman said has been in effect since before he was elected in 2004.

Jail reforms, expected by some estimates to cost as much as $22 million a year, are required under an agreement — known as a consent decree — that Gusman reached late last year with inmates’ lawyers and the U.S. Justice Department. Africk approved the pact in June, over the objections, based on costs, from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.

Gusman runs the jail, and the city provides funding. Landrieu has said the jail agreement, together with a separate court-backed reform plan for the Police Department, could result in the cash-strapped city having to cut services and lay off workers.

The administration has accused Gusman of mismanagement, bolstering its case with an inmate-made video that surfaced this year showing brazen drug use, gambling, beer drinking and the brandishing of a loaded handgun in a now-closed part of the jail complex. Inmates have testified about sexual assaults and beatings at the hands of guards or other inmates. Prisoner advocates have blamed two suicides in recent years on inadequate supervision of prisoners. Prison experts said treatment for mental or physical conditions was badly lacking and that violent inmates were often mixed in with vulnerable ones.

When a hearing on revenue and expenses in Gusman’s office opened June 24, Rosenberg likened Gusman to the illusionist “behind the curtain” in “The Wizard of Oz,” hiding details of his finances in what amounted to a veil of general expense and revenue categories.

Africk set a hearing for this Wednesday after making clear his irritation with the Sheriff’s Office for failing — until just before the June 24 hearing began — to turn over projected revenue and expenditure figures for this year.

Gusman has defended his financial management of the jail, accusing Landrieu of a lack of leadership and his administration of ignoring requests for funding to cover rising medical costs and other expenses.

And, while Gusman has come under criticism for alleged slow production of financial documents, the city, too, has had to deal with allegations of foot-dragging in the case.

On Thursday, Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys representing inmates joined the Justice Department in a motion saying the city has failed to provide financial documents pertaining to studies of staffing and financial needs at the jail. The attorneys say those documents are needed in advance of an Aug. 5 hearing. At that hearing, Africk — after next week’s hearings on the sheriff’s finances — is expected to consider how to fund the jail reform agreement. The city argued in a filing late Friday that the documents have actually been produced in earlier proceedings and called on Africk to deny the motion.

Funding matters are only part of the complex effort to reform the jail, formally known as Orleans Parish Prison.

In May, SPLC and Justice Department lawyers said the current design of a $145 million jail under construction in New Orleans — a facility that Gusman has said will go a long way toward improving conditions for inmates — won’t meet requirements of the reform agreement.

In papers filed at U.S. District Court, they said the facility lacks space to separately house mentally or physically ill inmates, suicidal inmates, youthful offenders or others who must be separated from the general prisoner population. There is no provision for an infirmary or clinic, and design flaws will make direct supervision of inmates difficult, hampering efforts to curb violence, the lawyers argue.

In a later filing, Gusman’s lawyers disputed those allegations, saying the prison is well-designed and will securely and safely house all prisoners. They also have noted, however, that a master plan for the prison includes eventual construction of another building for inmates with medical and mental health needs.

In a letter to Africk dated July 11, Gusman attorney Blake Arcuri said the city and Sheriff’s Office are working on issues raised about the new jail and expect to be able to advise Africk by Aug. 1.

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