Sheriff agrees to pay $900,000 in legal fees to civil rights group that sued prison

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Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office has agreed to pay the Southern Poverty Law Center $900,000 for legal fees and costs the center ran up in its fight to correct abusive conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison.

The sheriff’s office will pay the non-profit civil rights group $15,000 a month, over the course of 60 months, beginning on Jan. 15, according to a joint settlement — yet to be approved by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.

Both Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Gusman were present at various points during discussions Wednesday in Africk’s chambers. Attorney Harry Rosenberg represented the city; Katie Schwartzmann was the attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the jail over inhumane conditions in April 2012 and the U.S. Department of Justice joined the suit that fall, eventually reaching a consent decree under which the prison will institute numerous reforms.

The feds and the civil rights group alleged unconstitutional conditions, guard-on-prisoner brutality, suicides, rapes, understaffing, and rampant prisoner-on-prisoner violence pervasive at the sprawling prison under Gusman’s control.

In early September, Schwartzmann filed for attorney fees and costs associated with the case, requesting a fee of just over $1 million and costs of about $145,000.

There are several issues awaiting Africk’s ruling, including the total cost of the consent decree, who pays for it and who will pay for immediate changes that go into effect during the remainder of the 2013 calendar year.

The City and Sheriff’s Office have disputed the anticipated costs of the decree — estimates range between $7 million and $22 million per year.

City Council members may discuss the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office consent decree in executive session Thursday, according to a notice released Wednesday.

State open meetings law allows public bodies to exclude the public from discussion regarding pending litigation.

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