U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved a federal consent decree June 6 between the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to address conditions at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP).
The consent decree, to be assessed and overseen by an independent monitor, was welcomed by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, though he has stressed repeatedly that his office and the jail are run constitutionally. Gusman has claimed that the jail's conditions reflect a lack of funding and leadership from Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city. Landrieu objected to the consent decree over finances, arguing it will cost the city $110 million over five years.
In March, Landrieu held an emergency New Orleans City Council meeting to discuss the city's budgetary problems with managing consent decrees for both the New Orleans Police Department and OPP. Gusman then slammed Landrieu for what the sheriff called a "last-ditch attempt" by the city to get out of the decree. A week later, after hours of testimony in federal court, Gusman blasted the mayor for "throwing mud" regarding the now-infamous jailhouse footage of inmates flashing weapons, gambling, using drugs and drinking.
The court's ruling last week says OPP's conditions have created a "public health crisis" where "inmates, and particularly inmates with mental health issues, leave the facility more damaged, and perhaps more dangerous, than when they arrived."
In a statement, Landrieu said Africk's decision was "a clear condemnation of the conditions and operations" at OPP. He added, "I will continue to make our case to the court that the problems at OPP are more about management than money. The only way to fix the conditions and operations at the jail is to put a federal receiver in place that will run a safe and secure jail in a financially responsible way."
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which originally brought the lawsuit that led to the consent decree, praised Africk's decision. "For years, the jail has been too big and out of control," said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the SPLC's Louisiana office, in a prepared statement. "Now that the court order is in place, the real work of transforming the jail can begin. We hope that all parties will move quickly to enforce the provisions of the consent decree. We need to get staff in the jail. We need to get people mental health care. ... Reform simply cannot come soon enough."
— Alex Woodward