Reform coalition members Dana Kaplan and Norris Henderson in the shadow of the new billboard, which reads: “Stop jailing people to make money.” Photo by Matt Davis.

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

The Department Of Justice has accepted an invitation to a community forum next week hosted by a reform coalition, which aims to encourage the department to finally take legal action against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman over jail conditions.

Department of Justice attorney Regina Jansen has accepted the invitation from the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said coalition member Norris Henderson, who also runs the reform group Voice of The Ex-Offender. The meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Henderson revealed the news Thursday while admiring an electronic billboard paid for by the reform coalition, along Interstate 10 near the Superdome.

The coalition, whose 30 member organizations include the ACLU of Louisiana, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, has spent $5,000 to run a series of five ads on the billboard for the next month, urging the public to “Stop,” “Look,” “Listen,” and “Take Action,” “Now!” when it comes to jail reform.

The coalition is focused on ending the daily rate per prisoner paid to Gusman, because it says it provides a perverse incentive for Gusman to house as many prisoners as possible. It also wants the City of New Orleans to commit to building a new jail of no more than 1,438 beds — Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s jail working group was charged with reaching a final number by last November but has yet to settle on a final size for the new jail.

Henderson said the issue of jail reform has flown under the public’s radar until now, with attention focused on the recent trial of five New Orleans Police Department officers for killing civilians on the Danziger Bridge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“But we’re hoping that this billboard makes an impact and encourages people to think about these things,” Henderson said, watching the advertisements interchange with those for CBS, the NFL, ESPN, and Crown Royal.

“We’re in the tall cotton,” Henderson said, with reference to the billboard’s clients and prominence.  “Now we’ve got to wait for a rich harvest.”

Next week’s meeting will mark two years since the Department of Justice threatened to sue Gusman over unconstitutional conditions at his jail, and while Gusman has said he thinks he can reach an agreement with the department without a court order, the department has insisted that it plans to pursue a consent decree.

Henderson’s coalition colleague, Dana Kaplan, head of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, snapped photos of the ads on her cellphone before explaining why she feels the Department of Justice needs to take action.

“There have been 13 deaths in the jail since the Department of Justice threatened legal action,” Kaplan said. “We need immediate federal action that is legally enforceable in order to improve the conditions, which are very dangerous for both the inmates and the sheriff’s own employees.”

The Department of Justice and Gusman’s paid spokesman, Malcolm Ehrhardt, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

The community meeting to take testimony on jail conditions will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 20 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Mahalia Jackson Center, 2405 Jackson Avenue. Another meeting is scheduled for October 1, with a venue yet to be confirmed.