Critics: Sheriff needs at least $10 million more a year

Orleans Parish Prison remains dangerously understaffed, and Sheriff Marlin Gusman will need at least $10 million added to his budget this year if he hopes to satisfy the terms of a court-ordered overhaul of the jail, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of inmates said in court filings late Friday.

The cost will be closer to $22 million if the Sheriff’s Office follows the advice of court-appointed experts and brings deputies’ starting salaries in line with other area law enforcement agencies that offer better pay. The Sheriff’s Office needs to hire more than 600 employees, the attorneys said — a tall task for an agency that has struggled to recruit and retain help.

“OPP is a chaotic, dangerous facility that puts prisoners at an unreasonable risk of serious harm,” the attorneys wrote in a 45-page filing, pointing to a dire need for additional deputies to supervise inmates. “We cannot wait any longer to implement the reforms that have been held to be necessary to remedy the egregious unconstitutional conditions at OPP.”

The filing, which contained startling new details about the continuing dysfunctionality at the jail, comes two weeks before city and Sheriff’s Office officials are set to return to federal court to hash out a long-running dispute over how much money the city should contribute to the implementation of a federal consent decree — a possible repeat of a funding trial last summer that focused only on 2013 costs.

That proceeding is scheduled to begin March 20, five days after voters decide whether Gusman or his challenger, former Sheriff Charles Foti, will be sheriff for the next four years.

The consent decree requires the Sheriff’s Office to rewrite dozens of policies and procedures and significantly increase staffing levels at the jail, changes designed to protect inmates from the rampant violence that has come to define OPP.

Echoing many of the concerns reported by a team of monitors last month, the attorneys, Laura Coon of the Justice Department and Katie Schwartzmann of the MacArthur Justice Center, stressed that the question of funding is critical because progress “is stalled” at the troubled lockup.

They pointed to “wholly inadequate” medical staffing levels, unsupervised tiers and Gusman’s alleged failure to adhere to any of the mental health provisions outlined in the consent decree, noting that the jail’s suicide rate is now twice the national average.

“Five months after the implementation of the consent judgment, the level of harm and risk of harm in the Orleans Parish Prison system continues to be extremely high,” the attorneys wrote.

A spokesman for Gusman did not return calls Friday night seeking comment. A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As the Sheriff’s Office prepares to transfer inmates to a new, 1,438-bed jail, the office has decided to hire an outside firm to handle medical and mental health services; it plans to solicit bids later this month, according to the filing.

The new jail building is not equipped to treat inmates suffering from acute mental health issues, and Gusman has said he needs to renovate an existing jail building to serve that function as city officials decide whether to erect another permanent facility.

Alarmingly, the average number of incidents at the jail requiring inmates to be sent to the emergency room increased from 59.75 a month in 2012 to 60.7 a month in 2013, according to statistics cited in the court filings. “The averages have also increased for three out of the five referral categories: lacerations and punctures, fractures or dislocations, and sexual assaults,” Maggie Yates, a senior investigator with the MacArthur Justice Center, wrote in one filing.

The attorneys highlighted a September incident in which an inmate was “raped, forced to perform oral sex, tied up and stuffed in a laundry bag” on a tier where not a single deputy was stationed. While U.S. District Judge Lance Africk has stressed the importance of having a deputy present on every tier, the attorneys wrote, “that has not happened due to staff shortages.”

A heavily redacted memo about the alleged rape — which the attorneys said was “disturbingly similar” to a September 2011 sexual assault in which an inmate was sexually assaulted and tied up “for a prolonged period of time” — suggests that four inmates were arrested in the case, though their names are all blacked out in the exhibit filed in U.S. District Court.

The filing by Coon and Schwartzmann asserts that the protection of inmates “may ultimately require removal of prisoners from OPP to other parish jails if corrections deputies cannot be assigned to the unstaffed tiers quickly enough.”

City and Sheriff’s Office officials have offered few details about their negotiations in the funding dispute. The city, which under state law must pay for inmates’ care, budgeted an additional $2 million for the sheriff in 2014, but according to jail critics, those funds are not nearly enough to make the required changes.

“The cost to bring OPP into compliance with the requirements of the Constitution will be substantial,” the attorneys wrote, “and compliance will only be accomplished if there is a new sense of urgency.”