Faced with a so far intractable, $14 million divide between Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, U.S. Judge Lance Africk today ordered that two trials be held to determine, first, whether conditions at Orleans Parish jail are unconstitutional – and, if so, then who should pay to bring them into compliance.

The development is a blow to those who thought the troubled parish jail was going to be quickly upgraded under the terms of a federally supervised consent decree.

But with the city at odds with Gusman over the $14 million he says he needs for immediate improvements to staffing and training, Africk responded by ordering one trial on Feb. 19 and the other on April 1.

His ruling followed a status conference this morning that was attended by all players to the proposed consent decree and a separate class action lawsuit filed against prison officials by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April and subsequently joined by the United States Department of Justice.

Africk slated an initial pretrial conference for Feb. 1 and ordered parties to the proceedings to present briefs on “the constitutionality of conditions at Orleans Parish prison facilities with respect to medical care, mental health care, security, and general prison conditions.”

Africk ordered Gusman and the city to prepare for the April trial with the assumption that “the conditions identified by plaintiffs are unconstitutional.” He set a pretrial conference on the financial issues for March. 5.

Present for today’s status conference, yet another twist in a tortuous search for acceptable conditions at the parish prison complex, were several representatives from the Department of Justice, New Orleans city officials and attorneys, Gusman and his lawyers from Usry, Weeks & Matthews, plaintiffs’ lawyers and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

Africk said the parties “discussed reopening Hamilton et al. v. Schiro,” the 1969 court case that placed the jail under the authority of an earlier federal consent decree. He noted that “plaintiffs, the Sheriff of Orleans Parish, and the United States of America are in agreement that changes need to be made to ensure the constitutionality of conditions at Orleans Parish prison facilities.”

Noticeable by its absence in Africk’s comment: the City of New Orleans.

U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey, who signed off on the last substantive changes wrought by the 1969 decree was also present for the status hearing, as was former state Judge Terry Q. Alarcon. Africk appointed Alarcon “special master” last month to adjudicate the dispute over paying for an interim consent decree.

Declaring an impasse, Africk said the city will not agree that changes at the jail are needed until the funding dispute is resolved. He then proceeded to set the trial dates.

The city maintains its position, that “there has been no proof that any of the alleged unconstitutional conditions at the jail are the result of a lack of funding,” mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni said this afternoon.

Gusman and plaintiffs lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center were not immediately available for comment.

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...