As Hurricane Isaac was making its way across the Gulf of Mexico two weeks ago, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman was meeting in New Orleans with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice to work on a long anticipated consent decree to remedy unconstitutional conditions at the city jail complex.

But Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration didn’t send anyone to the meetings and admits that it hasn’t been as involved in the negotiations as it was during similar talks that led in July to a federal consent decree for the New Orleans Police Department.

“The City just recently became involved in substantive negotiations regarding a consent decree for the Orleans Parish Prison complex,” Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said in an email.

Critics of the jail condemn the delays for jeopardizing the rights and safety of both guards and prisoners.

Berni dismissed an inquiry by The Lens as to whether concern about the proposed decree’s potentially hefty costs was prompting the city to stall.

“Being that we have been discussing the financial impact of the proposed consent decree for a short period of time, it is ridiculous for any entity or individual to assert that the City would be responsible for any hold-up,” Berni wrote.

City Council President Stacy Head said she has been fighting for a role in the negotiations, to no avail.

“At this point the council has not been engaged in those discussions,” Head told The Lens. “I have made calls to the Justice Department to let them know that I, as one council member, am interested in making sure swift improvements at the jail will happen. Unfortunately I have not gotten a response.”

On Aug. 23, The Lens asked the Justice Department the following questions about the negotiations:

  • Have Department of Justice officials been in New Orleans meeting with Sheriff Marlin Gusman this week?
  • Has the city of New Orleans sent an attorney or other official to work on the negotiations?
  • Is the Department of Justice satisfied with the City of New Orleans’ participation in the negotiations?
  • What is the Department of Justice’s expected timeline for the federal consent decree to be unveiled to the public?

The government’s response was telling in what it did not address.

“Department officials have met with Sheriff Marlin Gusman over the past week in New Orleans,” an official with the Department of Justice replied by email on Aug. 24. “The department declines further comment.”

Gusman offered a flat “no comment” through his spokesman, Marc Ehrhardt of the Ehrhardt Group public relations company, when asked about the city’s participation, or lack thereof, in the negotiations.

Berni did not answer a direct question about whether the city had sent anyone to the meetings in late August.

The Landrieu administration was deeply involved in negotiations that in July yielded the police department’s consent decree, a costly one. Landrieu has pegged the price of implementing the NOPD decree at up to $55 million over five years.

For those negotiations, Landrieu hired a local law firm to represent the city’s interests. The city also hired a former police officer as a liaison between the federal government and the police department, and deployed staff from the City Attorney’s office.

“City Attorneys are representing the city’s interest in this matter, just as they did in the New Orleans Police Department consent decree,” Berni said of the sheriff’s office negotiations.

Head noted that under the New Orleans City Charter, the City Attorney’s office “represents the council’s and the city’s interests.”

She suggested that reluctance by the Department of Justice to let her attend the meetings stemmed from there being  nobody present from the City Attorney’s office; the federal government isn’t able to give her access unilaterally, she surmised.

Criminal-justice advocates are demanding that the city immediately step up its role in the negotiations.

“The lives of those affected by Orleans Parish Prison—both those imprisoned and those who work there—are at risk every day,” said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The city must act with urgency before more lives are broken or lost.”

In April, Schwartzmann’s organization sued Gusman and other prison officials over charges that prisoners are routinely brutalized at the sprawling jail complex.

That same month, the Department of Justice sent one of Gusman’s lawyers, T. Allen Usry, a strongly worded update to a previous letter that identified unconstitutional conditions in Gusman’s jail complex.

It noted that a draft consent decree had been sent to Gusman in November 2011.

The letter accused Gusman of failing to seriously negotiate the consent decree and said that the delay had meant that “OPP prisoners have needlessly suffered and staff members’ safety has been at risk, contrary to the best interests of the people of New Orleans.”

The letter urged Gusman to “engage in an aggressive schedule of negotiations with the Special Litigation team to reach an agreed-upon remedy embodied in a federal consent decree with a monitor.” And apparently he did just that.

The city cannot duck liability for what’s wrong at the jail by dragging its feet in negotiations over the consent decree, critics contend.

The city funds the jail by paying Gusman a daily rate for each prisoner. Long-criticized as an incentive to maximize the jail population, it’s a formula that city officials across the board have said they are committed to ending this year. Landrieu, Gusman and the city council have all said they want to move to a line-item budget in 2013.

With budgetary control comes at least partial responsibility for unconstitutional conditions.

“To the extent that the unconstitutional conditions at the jail stem from the governing authority’s—in this case the City Council’s—failures in its obligation to adequately fund the operations at the jail and any necessary maintenance, the city faces liability,” said civil rights attorney Elizabeth Cumming.

“The city has not been paying for the actual cost of housing city prisoners in constitutional conditions for years,” Cumming said, “so when that actual cost is determined, the city will be on the hook.”

Head is hopeful that the Justice Department will solicit the City Council input moving forward.

“I look forward to more open and public engagement of the Justice Department,” she said, “along with their assistance in letting the council know what our role can and should be in assuring immediate condition improvement.”

Since details of the NOPD’s consent decree were announced July 24, the city has continued to participate administratively and financially in its implementation. On July 27, the city extended its contract with the law firm Capitelli & Wicker for a year, adding another $100,000 to the $250,000 it had already paid the firm for representing its interests in the negotiations.

The city also extended until February its $65,000 per year contract with Daniel Cazenave, the former New Orleans police officer hired by the city in February 2011 to be a liaison between the police department and Department of Justice.

No comparable contracts have been signed by the city as part of Gusman’s negotiations.

Berni rebuffed inquiries as to whether the public might get a look at the sheriff’s consent decree anytime soon. “It took over two years for the Department of Justice to formally investigate and complete negotiations with us regarding [the] New Orleans Police Department’s consent decree,” he wrote. “We would expect that all parties would operate with the same diligence and thorough review in mind in this matter especially considering the ongoing work that has been done on our part to ensure that we rebuild a right-sized jail and that we move to a fixed budget for the jail, which is a national best practice.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...