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New Orleans asks judge to seize troubled prison from sheriff

April 10, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, center, is the target of criticism for poor conditions at the parish prison.
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, center, is the target of criticism… (Gerald Herbert / Associated…)

Conditions have gotten so bad at a New Orleans prison that city officials have asked a judge to appoint a replacement for the sheriff in charge, according to a federal court filing.

For years, the Orleans Parish Prison has been criticized by the U.S. Department of Justice as being so dangerous and poorly run that the facility violates inmates' constitutional rights. Those complaints exploded into national view last week as a prison video presented during testimony for a class-action lawsuit showed inmates doing drugs, fiddling with a gun while in a cell and roaming free on the streets in 2009.

Last week's testimony was supposed to present evidence for a judge to decide whether a December agreement -- proposed by inmates, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the jail's operator, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman -- would be satisfactory for reforming the prison.

But city officials in New Orleans, which may have to pour millions into improving the prison, were so galled by the sheriff's testimony that they asked the federal judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, to place responsibility for the prison in someone else's hands.

In Tuesday's filing that requested the prison be put in receivership, city attorneys' disbelief at Gusman's testimony seemed to mount with each of the sheriff's assertions:

"After testifying that he did not recall ever seeing the tapes, Sheriff Gusman then testified that he saw them in 2009," the filing stated. "He offered even more implausible testimony that the tapes were in a safe for more than three years and neither he nor his senior staff knew how to open the safe. As part of an effort to blunt the import of these tapes, the sheriff suggested that tapes had been doctored, though he was unable to offer any support for this implausible notion. Building upon his incredulous suggestions, the sheriff publicly said he could not detect contraband in the videos because he was using a small screen to watch them."

Local voices joined a chorus of opposition to the sheriff, who could not be reached by the Los Angeles Times for comment Tuesday evening. Much of the criticism focused on the fact that the sheriff denied allegations of significant problems at the prison despite signing the consent decree in December that promised fixes.

"How can he be trusted to fix the jail if he isn't convinced it's broke?” New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry wrote in an op-ed.

In a Saturday editorial, the Times-Picayune's editorial board agreed. "It is the sheriff himself who clinches the argument that he is unfit to oversee reforms at the prison," the board stated.

The request to place the Orleans Parish Prison in receivership comes as the city is  deciding on who will monitor the New Orleans Police Department as part of sweeping reforms proposed for the department in a consent decree.

The prison shake-up presents significant financial liabilities for the city, which funds the prison and which has already agreed to a five-year, $55-million plan to reform the Police Department. The proposed prison consent decree could cost the city even more, depending on a final settlement. As part of its request to place the prison in receivership, the city is also asking someone else to take financial responsibility in addition to taking the reins from Gusman.

"Stated simply, the person at the top is neither accountable nor capable of exercising leadership skills, as the testimony last week regrettably revealed," the city's filing concluded. "If the current situation does not justify the appointment of a reciever, nothing does."

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