For a change, both Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s staff and city officials agreed in federal court today on at least one thing: The Orleans Parish Prison is significantly understaffed.

At least 130 more deputies are needed, and significant upgrades to the medical staff are required.

Of course, the disagreements start as soon as it comes time to determine who should pay. The prison complex is under the sheriff’s control, but the city is responsible for financing operations related to holding city prisoners, the bulk of the operation’s work.

Follow a blog written in real time here. I’ll blog tomorrow’s hearing on that same page.

Gusman has said he needs as much as $23 million a year more from the city to implement necessary reforms. The city says the cost is closer to $7 million, and that better money management by the sheriff would yield nearly that much.

The hearing in U.S. District Judge Lance Africk’s courtroom is part of an ongoing lawsuit that has already determined that drastic changes are needed to bring the prison up to constitutional standards. Today’s hearing, which will continue Tuesday, is meant to help Africk determine how much more money is needed for the current year, and whether the city or the Sheriff’s Office should pay. The sheriff is a parish-level office separate from the city’s bureaucracy.

Chief Deputy Gerald Ursin said the starting pay of $9.69 for deputies inside the jail is so low that nearly a third of the staff quits each year, with some leaving for fast-food jobs that pay better. He said this annual base pay of about $27,000 is well below that of St. Charles Parish, at $36,000 and St. Bernard Parish, at $35,000.

However, a corrections expert for the city, James Austin, later testified that Orleans covers a much higher cost for medical insurance and that the resulting net is comparable across the region.

The shortage of jailers is so acute, said Sheriff’s Col. Michael Laughlin, that his staffing study recently showed that some of the jail complex’s buildings had half the posts unmanned. He said that in some cases, this means up to 24 violent prisoners are put together in the same dayroom with virtually no supervision from deputies, he said.

On the other side of the equation, Austin said the sheriff could and should reduce jail population significantly by sending post-conviction state prisoners elsewhere, and returning other prisoners to Plaquemines. He said such a reduction would make the complex safer for inmates and guards alike, leading to better work environment for deputies and lower attrition.

Austin also stressed that the jail needs a proper administrator, with a background in corrections, to provide the kind of leadership that he said is sorely lacking now.

The Orleans Parish Prison’s former medical director also took the stand to talk about the necessary costs that would bring that area of the jail up to snuff. Dr. Richard Demaree Inglese is now the medical director for the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office, after serving in that role from 2000 through 2006 in New Orleans. He said he knows the peculiarities and costs better than other experts consulted, and he said $7.6 million a year will be necessary just to bring the medical unit into compliance with the federal consent decree – and that’s with a bare-bones staff.

The hearing will continue Tuesday, scheduled for 8:30 a.m.

Sara Rahman

Sara Rahman is a third-year law student at New York University, where she serves as an editor of the New York University Review of Law and Social Change. She reports on criminal justice issues as an intern...