Sheriff asking to make the city a co-defendant in prison lawsuit

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Inmates at the Temporary Detention Center sleep in dormitory-style bunks. Photo by Tom Gogola

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is trying to spread anticipated financial pain at his jail complex to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.

Gusman’s attorneys filed papers Friday with U.S. District Judge Lance Africk seeking to include the city as a third-party defendant in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that Gusman has been running an unconstitutional, unsafe jail rife with brutality, understaffing and other problems.

On Friday, the city said that the move by Gusman was part of the plan all along.

“The city had already planned to become involved in this lawsuit,” Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said, “and this third-party complaint does not allege that the City is liable for damages sustained by the plaintiffs.”

The move comes days after the U.S. Department of Justice joined a Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit against Gusman. In doing so, the federal government was able to secure the legal standing necessary to pursue and eventually implement a much-anticipated consent decree with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Gusman has been huddling lately with Department of Justice officials to hash out an agreement that would supplant the one under which the jail is currently operating. That decree sets the daily per-prisoner rate the city pays Gusman.

The city told The Lens at the end of August that it had only recently entered into substantive negotiations with Gusman and the Department of Justice. The city hasn’t hired an outside attorney or consultants to move the Orleans Parish Prison consent decree along, as it did for similar federal negotiations regarding the New Orleans Police Department. The city is continuing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to several consultants and law firms since engaging with the Justice Department and NOPD two years ago.

The city is still negotiating the last details of the NOPD consent decree in federal court. Landrieu has said it will cost the city up to $55 million over the next five years.

Regarding the Sheriff’s Office, the city has tasked only two city attorneys to the negotiations, Richard Cortizas and Sharonda Williams, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said.

City officials have already told The Lens that cost concerns didn’t animate their apparent reluctance to enter into substantive negotiations with Gusman and the Department of Justice until recently.

The rationale behind the move by Gusman’s attorney, T. Allen Usry, was simple enough: The city finances the jails under Gusman’s control.

Court watchers have recently suggested that the city bears responsibility for unconstitutional conditions if they arise because of a lack of funding at the jail.

In the court filing Friday, Gusman said that he supported most of the changes under consideration for Orleans Parish Prison, none of which is actually detailed in the lawsuits or any supplemental filings.

The solutions contained in the decree would aim to end a raft of problems identified in the Southern Poverty Law Center suit and two letters of finding issued by the Department of Justice since 2009. The latest letter of finding, from April 23 of this year, urges Gusman to sign off on the decree it sent him in November.

Gusman’s attorney noted in the court filing that the proposed remedies were costly:

“Implementation of many of those recommendations will require additional funding. The Sheriff has no significant source of revenue other than those he receives for housing detainees for the City. The Sheriff cannot responsibly make promises to the Court and the parties to take steps to change conditions at the jail unless and until he has financial resources to fulfill those commitments.”

The sprawling complex of jail buildings under Gusman’s control is funded on what is commonly called a “per diem” budgeting formula in which the city pays Gusman a flat daily rate for every prisoner. That system has often been decried by criminal-justice activists as providing a “perverse incentive” to lock up as many people as possible in the jail. Gusman has maintained that he doesn’t have any control over who winds up in the jail.

For prisoners locked up on local charges, the daily rate is $22.39. That amount is designated in a decades-old consent decree that was revised in 2002 to raise the rate by about $2.

Gusman said the amount doesn’t cover his expenses.

Ushering out the per-diem budget would appear to be an underlying, if unstated, goal in the lawsuit against Gusman.

City officials including Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, have been meeting to determine if the sheriff’s budget could become one set amount.

A series of emails obtained by The Lens indicates that per diem negotiations are indeed tied up in the anticipated Orleans Parish Prison consent decree.

In a March 22 email, Guidry wrote numerous city officials to thank them for attending the previous day’s per-diem meeting.

In that note, Guidry reminds participants of the action items from the meeting. One of them was directed at Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, whose task was to “discuss status of City’s discussions with the DOJ re: OPP consent decree with Richard Cortizas.”

Guidry noted in a recent email to The Lens that the city and Gusman want a set budget amount dedicated to the Sheriff’s Office.

“I fully expect that the per diem system will end this year,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, there are still considerable differences of opinion between the City and Sheriff about the appropriate level of funding for his office.”

 

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