Monitor: Inmates, staff still in danger at New Orleans jail ordered by court to reform

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NEW ORLEANS — The monitor overseeing court-ordered reform efforts at the violent and unsanitary New Orleans jail says progress is slow, while inmates and staff at the lockup "continue to face grave harm."

A report filed by the monitor in federal court Tuesday noted that 361 out of about 2,000 inmates required emergency medical care in the first six months of this year and that 200 of them were injured due to fights with other inmates, self-inflicted harm or an unspecified event.

The monitor said mental health care is "virtually non-existent" at the jail while fire safety and sanitation problems remain.

It says compliance efforts by the sheriff are disorganized. It stressed the need for the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, to reach agreement with the city on how to fund the reforms.

"The Sheriff and the City need to agree on current year and future years' funding for the jail's operations; as well as the budget process," said the report from a monitoring team headed by corrections expert Susan W. McCampbell. "The current strategy of going from crisis to crisis does not further the objectives of either party, removes focus from the safe operation of the jail, and wastes the scarce resources of both parties."

Sheriff Marlin Gusman issued a one-page news release Tuesday afternoon, saying he's committed to the court-ordered reforms.

McCampbell is monitoring compliance with an agreement U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved last year to settle a lawsuit by inmates and the U.S. Justice Department against Gusman over conditions at the jail, formally known as Orleans Parish Prison. Before and after the agreement was approved, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the sheriff sparred over its costs and Gusman's management of the facility. During proceedings last year, the court released an inmate-made video showing blatant drug use and the brandishing of a loaded gun in a now-closed section of the jail complex.

Tuesday's report was McCampbell's second. She said some progress has been made but the Sheriff's Office has not made "substantial changes" since the first report in February. She was critical of Gusman's failure to hire human-resources professionals to develop salary structures and job descriptions. She said the process has stalled and she stressed the necessity of planning for staffing a new jail facility that is nearing completion, which Gusman has said will go a long way toward correcting problems at the jail.

McCampbell's report also said that the Sheriff's Office isn't reporting to the monitor all serious incidents involving inmate harm, as required under the court agreement. She also said it is unclear whether all such incidents are reported to top jail officials.

Sheriff's Office officials and the city should step up efforts to hire and fund a vendor to provide mental-health services for inmates, the report said. "The Monitors note that there is work underway ... but not at a pace or with the sense of urgency required given the tasks at hand, the danger to the inmates and staff, and the reforms required," it said.

Gusman's statement did not address all of McCampbell's points. However, he did say his office is in final negotiations to contract with a new mental-health and medical-care provider. He also noted the hiring of a compliance officer who will help speed up the reforms, and said a team is working to aid the agency's transition to a new inmate housing building. The building will open later this year, the statement said.

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