NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The sheriff of New Orleans can be put back in control of the city’s long-troubled jail despite still-serious problems that triggered U.S. Justice Department oversight and a 2012 lawsuit, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman had agreed to cede authority over the Orleans Parish jail to a court-approved “compliance director” in 2016, amid complaints that progress was too slow toward court-ordered reforms aimed at improving medical care while curbing inmate violence, drug contraband and suicide attempts.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, citing the latest report by court-appointed independent monitors, said there are still serious problems at the jail.
“For example, there remain significant incidents of violence relating to inmates and staff that must be addressed,” he wrote. “Pressing medical and mental health issues, especially among women, cannot be ignored.”
But, Africk noted that the monitors — while still critical of some aspects of jail operations — found the jail is at least in partial compliance with each of the reform requirements contained in an agreement settling a 2012 lawsuit by inmate advocates and the Justice Department over conditions at the jail.
“The material progress made by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is no small feat. It has been accomplished through the leadership of the Compliance Director, Monitors, Sheriff Gusman, jail staff, and all parties,” Africk wrote.
That compliance director post has been held since early 2018 by corrections expert Darnley Hodge. The specific date for the end of his appointment was not set in Wednesday's ruling.
Africk's order doesn't end court supervision of reform efforts. And the monitors made clear in their July 27 report that they believe “minimal progress” has been made to establish staff review and inspection procedures to make sure progress continues.
“Instead, there is often pushback against the Monitors and claims that the Monitors are ‘demanding perfection,’ ‘moving the goalpost,’ or that the Consent Judgment only requires them to review data, not to remedy the obvious deficiencies any meaningful review would reveal,” the report said.
Gusman agreed to cede control of the jail in 2016 as lawyers for inmates and the Justice Department pressed for the jail to be placed in “federal receivership” — in which a third party would have been put in control of the jail. The agreement left the elected sheriff nominally in charge, but with board authority over jail operations left to the compliance director.
The previous year, inmates were moved from the old, decaying jail complex — where a 2013 video had surfaced showing rampant drug use and even the brandishing of a handgun in a cell — into a new building. Gusman had touted the move as key to improving conditions but monitors said violence endangering inmates and staffers continued at the new facility. A suicide at the jail months after the move demonstrated that the need for reform continued.