An empty guard tower stands over part of Old Parish Prison, part of the prison-jail complex. Photo by Tom Gogola

A federal judge today allowed the U.S. Department of Justice to join a lawsuit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, a necessary step toward a likely consent decree that will govern reforms at the sheriff’s prison complex.

When the government announced its move Monday, Gusman responded with a news release that said he supports the Justice Department’s participation in the lawsuit – a lawsuit that he previously opposed, describing it as baseless.

The federal lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in early April.

Granting the Justice Department’s request, also known as giving it “intervenor” status, is a necessary legal tactic before a consent decree, enforced by a federal judge, can be finalized between Gusman and the feds.

It would be designed to  end the allegations by the government and civil-rights activists of unconstitutional conditions, guard-on-prisoner brutality, suicides, rapes, understaffing, and rampant prisoner-on-prisoner violence pervasive at the multi-facility sprawl of jails under his control.

In its court filing Monday, the Justice Department said it has negotiated an agreement with Gusman “that will resolve the concerns of the United States as well as those raised by the parties to this litigation.”

In a statement issued through the Ehrhardt Group public-relations company Monday night, Gusman said, “We look forward to working within the court system and with the parties involved to arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution, just as the New Orleans Police Department did with the Justice Department.”

Gusman wasn’t always so cooperative.

Not long after the lawsuit was filed, Gusman invited reporters to the Conchetta jail facility on Tulane Avenue to meet with Deputy Chief Gerald Ursin, medical director Samuel Gore and Maj. Michael Laughlin from the Special Operations Division.

The trio attempted to undermine the veracity the lawsuit by picking apart claims of brutality and rape made by several defendants.

Some of the law center’s charges against Gusman cite Department of Justice language in a letter of findings sent to Gusman in 2009. That letter accused Gusman of running an out-of-control jail devoid of humane treatment for mentally ill inmates, and overrun with unconstitutional policies and practices.

Other charges in the suit were based on interviews of inmates undertaken by the organization.

Within a month, the Justice Department wrote Gusman again and charged that unconstitutional conditions at the jail that had not been fixed.

It urged him to sign off on a draft consent decree.

At the time of the Justice Department letter, Gusman charged in a press release that the letter trafficked in “sensationalized” claims of abuse at Orleans Parish Prison.

Katie Schwartzmann, Southern Poverty Law Center managing attorney, said that despite Gusman’s attempt to undermine her group’s findings to reporters, none of the affidavits she collected were removed from the lawsuit.

Gusman has repeatedly said his office “responded to each and every allegation” made by the Department of Justice and Southern Poverty Law Center.

When such a charge is levied, said Gore to the reporters, “We jump all over it.”

Gusman now is offering support for the lawsuit in hopes that it will edge a federally enforced consent decree closer to reality.

But it may still be some time in coming.

The city and New Orleans Police Department are still hashing out the details with a federal judge over the final language in the police department’s consent decree, which took over two years to negotiate. It may cost the city up to $55 million over the next five years to implement, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said.

The Lens recently reported on criticisms from jail-watchers that the city wasn’t nearly as involved in consent decree negotiations at Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, possibly owing to the timing of another big-ticket criminal-justice item on the heels of the NOPD consent decree.

Mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni told the Lens that the city was just “substantially” getting involved in the negotiations at the end of August, and that any talk of the cost being an impediment to the city’s lack of participation was “ridiculous.”

Berni did not respond to two phone calls and two emails seeking comment on this week’s development. Berni said Tuesday evening the city does not oppose the Justice Department joining the lawsuit. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a phone call and two emails seeking comment about Gusman’s flip-flop on the lawsuit.

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...