The Turmoil of Prison Reform in New Orleans

Adam Nossiter, a reporter for The New York Times, once wrote that New Orleans is “a city fond of its own self-portrait.”

It was an astute observation – revived by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s recent State of the City address.

Buoyed by glowing economic reports and the success of the Super Bowl, the mayor urged locals to begin working together for the city’s 300th anniversary celebration in 2018. “The goal,” Landrieu says, is to create a safe and prosperous “city for the ages.”

“Public safety” – the first maxim of any government – is more of a goal here than a rule; more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Since President Obama took office, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has been the focus of the most intensive reform effort in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ).

The feds have undertaken a similar initiative with the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) system, which a court-recognized corrections expert recently described as “likely the worst large city jail in the United States.”

Landrieu took office in May 2010 by asking for federal help to reform the NOPD and to end the city’s “culture of death and violence.”

Expressing sticker shock at millions of dollars in estimated costs to the city for reforming both the NOPD and OPP, Landrieu tried, unsuccessfully, to get out of his court-approved deal with the feds to implement “constitutional policing” at the NOPD.

The mayor then tried (and failed) to block a second federal plan, aimed at wresting control of OPP from violent prison predators. Landrieu feuded openly with Sheriff Marlin Gusman, accusing him of poorly managing his annual city funding allotment, which his administration under-estimated at $22.5 million, according to a June 6 audit by the city Inspector General which said the allocation topped $37.5 million in 2011. (This article continues after the video below.)

Reporter Allen Johnson, Jr., gives his own thoughts on the future of Orleans Parish Prison.

Gusman, a career politician and skilled bureaucratic infighter, disputed the OIG figures, blaming his ineffectiveness on inadequate city financing and a lack of new gulags.

On June 6, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved a consent judgment between Gusman, the feds and civil rights attorneys at the Southern Poverty Law Center, representing juvenile and mentally ill inmates, who sued the sheriff.

Africk, an appointee of President George W. Bush, who served as a chief prosecutor under local U.S. Attorney John Volz (1982-’90) and Orleans Parish District Attorney Connick (’77-’80), ruled the prison reform plan is “the only way to overcome years of stagnation that have permitted OPP to remain an indelible stain on the community, and it will ensure that OPP inmates are treated in a manner that does not offend contemporary notions of human decency.”

The plan also meets the standards of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which Congress enacted to limit the courts’ involvement in prison reform to the constitutional minimum requirements needed to remedy federal rights violations, Africk wrote.

The judge said a five-year federal investigation of the prison and a trial of the inmates’ suit obviated the need for change.

(Jones v. Gusman, 12-1924)
“The staggering level of violence at OPP is evidenced by the testimony of the experts and inmates, the number of investigated assaults, the high threshold required for such investigations, the records of hospital transports, and inmate grievances,” the judge wrote.

“Experts opined that OPP poses ‘clear and present dangers’ of ‘life and death proportions’ with respect to suicide and inmate violence, and the risk of a tragic fire is unacceptable. Inmate escapes are not uncommon, and the prospect of armed inmates, whether outside or inside prison walls, is alarming. The evidence shows that OPP itself presents a public safety crisis, which endangers inmates, staff, and the community at large.”

Jeffrey Schwartz, a 35-year veteran corrections expert who has evaluated approximately 300 prisons and jails, testified – “OPP is the worst jail I’ve ever seen.” Schwartz described, “extraordinary and horrific” conditions on a prison system “plagued” by “suicides and other in-custody deaths, rapes and other sexual assaults, stabbings and severe beatings.”

The judge rejected the city’s opposition to the jail plan, saying it offered no constitutional alternative. He rejected arguments the plan would force the city to place the needs of prisoners above the public as “disingenuous.”

“The court is well aware of New Orleans’ high homicide rate and budgetary constraints, but the evidence shows that violent crime is endemic within OPP as well,” the judge ruled. “OPP inmates, and particularly inmates with mental health issues, leave the facility more damaged, and perhaps more dangerous, than when they arrived.”

Landrieu appeared in court to say he was “unwilling to sign” the OPP agreement. “The mayor advised the court that when he signed the NOPD consent decree, the city was unaware that it was facing additional, significant revenue requests in connection with the OPP litigation.”

The mayor made a similar argument to U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who denied the city’s request to vacate its consent decree with the feds to reform the NOPD.

 “The city’s argument that it had no knowledge of the potential cost ramifications for the OPP Consent Decree at the time it signed the NOPD consent decree is patently false,” Morgan wrote May 23. “At least as early as July 19, 2012, several days before the city signed the NOPD consent decree on July 24, ’12, the city was on notice that the sheriff intended to request ‘$22.5 million of ‘new’ estimated costs’ that would ‘bring the total budget for OPP to $45 million’ for 2013.”

(United States v. City of New Orleans, No. 12-1924)
Africk says he will provide a “rigorous examination” of the sheriff’s books and monitor the OPP reform plan to “minimize any indirect adverse effects on public safety.”

Going forward, the mayor should insist reforms for NOPD’s paid details (a.k.a. the “aorta of corruption”) should be extended to sheriff’s deputies, whose first priority should be the prison.

He also should amplify the outrage of the sheriff’s attorney who told Africk that rising health care costs has resulted, increasingly, in the “dumping” of the mentally ill at OPP and the housing of more disabled people in the nation’s jails and prisons than its psychiatric facilities.

A city as good as the people of New Orleans needs both “constitutional incarceration” and constitutional policing. That is a “self-portrait” we’d like to see by 2018.

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