By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman insists that he and the U.S. Justice Department will reach an out-of-court agreement over conditions at his jail, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Justice Department official  and  others familiar with the negotiations tell a different story.

The department first threatened Gusman with a lawsuit in September 2009, asking him to make improvements in the administration of medications and inmate safety, including taking steps to suppress brutality by guards.

Since then, Gusman has made some policy changes but conditions in his jail continue to draw close scrutiny from civil-rights attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates, particularly following the death of a federal inmate on Aug. 7, after the inmate ate half a roll of toilet paper and suffocated while on suicide watch.

Gusman told reporters on Friday that he is pursuing a memorandum of understanding with the department, a legal document that would not be subject to oversight by a Federal Court judge. But others have said that the negotiation will result in a consent decree, a binding legal agreement overseen in federal court.

Landrieu mentioned the situation as he answered a question last week about how the city pays the sheriff, which was asked during Tuesday’s public meeting on the city budget.

“But there’s a consent decree that’s pending already, and that will be part of the discussion,” Landrieu said. Watch video of Landrieu’s remarks here.

A spokeswoman for the department said a consent decree, and not a memorandum of understanding, is the goal.

“We are aware of the ongoing problems at the jail and hope to negotiate a consent decree in the near future,” Xochitl Hinojosa said. “Our attorneys will continue to work with the Sheriff’s Office to resolve these issues.”

Asked to clarify whether a consent decree is looming, and not a memorandum of understanding, Hiojosa simply repeated herself, emphasizing the words “consent decree.”

Meanwhile, members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition said that four Justice Deparment attorneys said a consent decree is coming, during a conference call on Aug. 4.

“They did use the words ‘consent decree,’ and said that it is their intent to seek one,” said Liz Cummings, a civil-rights attorney who was present at the meeting.

“They used the words ‘consent decree,’” said Norris Henderson, with Voice of the Ex-Offender, who was also on the call. “This ‘memorandum of understanding’ that the sheriff’s talking about, I don’t know where he’s getting that. It might be wishful thinking, but this is supposed to be a consent decree.”

Loyola Professor Michael Cowan first raised the possibility of a consent decree at Landrieu’s jail committee meeting on July 25.

Gusman told a FOX 8 reporter on Friday that Cowan was “obviously misinformed.”

Cowan, who is working with Gusman to determine the appropriate size of the new jail, later told the same reporter that a consent decree may not be in the offing after all.

Cowan did not return a call for comment from The Lens.

The sheriff’s contracted spokesman, Malcolm Ehrhardt, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Department attorneys also said they have not held community meetings about jail conditions after being asked by federal Judge Kurt Engelhardt to wait until the Danziger Bridge trial was complete, Henderson said.

Engelhardt is understood to have expressed concern about the impact on a jury pool of such community meetings, but he did not return a call seeking comment. The department did not respond to questions on this issue either.