After more than four years of being run by an appointed compliance director rather than an elected official, it appears likely that the day-to-day operations of the New Orleans jail will once again soon be in the hands of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
In a court filing on Monday, lawyers involved in the New Orleans jail consent decree litigation — representing the U.S. Department of Justice and the jail inmate plaintiffs’ class — said they had no opposition to Gusman’s request to return the jail back to his control. At the same time, they warned that there was substantial work to be done for the jail to be operating up to the constitutional standards required by the consent decree.
Gusman officially asked the court to terminate the compliance director position in late May. In the same filing, he also asked the court to terminate the consent judgment altogether, and sharply criticized the monitors in charge of assessing the jails progress. But the motion to terminate the consent judgement was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who has presided over the consent decree since it was first proposed in 2012. (Africk signed off on the consent decree the following year.)
Africk has not yet ruled on the motion to remove the compliance director, Darnley Hodge, who has been in charge of the jail since 2018.
In order for the compliance director position to be terminated, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) needed to show that there had been “material progress” made in substantially complying with the consent decree.
“While OPSO still has not reached substantial compliance with key components of the Consent Judgment and serious risks to members of the Plaintiff Class remain,” the lawyers wrote, “Plaintiffs concur that the limited and negotiated standard of ‘material progress’ with substantial compliance with the provisions of the Consent Judgment has been achieved, and therefore do not oppose termination of the Compliance Directorship.”
Hodge told The Lens in early May that he thought it was time for Gusman to retake control of the jail. He also said that he thought the jail was in “in substantial compliance with 100 percent” of the consent judgment.
In their filing on Monday, however, lawyers for the plaintiffs disagreed. They asserted “that there are current and ongoing violations of class members’ constitutional rights which warrant the continued enforcement of the Consent Judgment.”
An attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center, who represents the plaintiff class, declined to comment. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Later on Monday, attorneys for the city of New Orleans, which funds the jail and is a third-party defendant in the consent decree suit, filed a response to Gusman’s request, likewise expressing support for ending the compliance director position.
The city cited Hodge’s comments to The Lens as well as the cost of paying Hodge’s salary, saying that “the taxpayers of the City of New Orleans should not be further burdened with funding the ongoing costs associated with compensation for the Court-appointed Independent Jail Compliance Director and the Compliance Director’s legal team, at the sole expense of the City.”
In the last report from a team of monitors overseeing the jail for the court, released in January, the monitors noted improvements in jail operations, but found that the jail was in substantial compliance with just 59 percent of the consent decree’s provisions.
They noted that there was “significant work to be done to properly staff the facility, finalize training on policies, curb violence, and improve medical and mental health care.”
Attorneys on Monday emphasized that that work would need to continue — even if Gusman retakes control of the facility.
“As operational control of the Orleans Parish jail returns to the Sheriff, under the continued oversight of the Monitors and the authority of this Court,” the lawyers wrote, “OPSO must continue to work towards substantial and sustainable compliance pursuant to the terms of the Consent Judgment and the requirements of the Constitution.”
This story was updated to include the city’s most recent filing in the case, which was available late Monday afternoon.