Covering Louisiana

Aug 24, 2013 1:33 PM by KATC

Legal battles wear on despite accord on new jail

A federal judge has agreed to postpone a scheduled Sept. 30 hearing on jail reforms in New Orleans, while the city advances plans for a new building to hold inmates who should not be mixed with the general jail population.

Those plans were outlined in court papers filed this week about an agreement between Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration and the man who runs the jail, Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

Agreement over the proposed building did not signal accord on other matters in a long-running political and legal battle between Landrieu and Gusman. The city, which funds the jail, remains at odds with Gusman over the cost of a court-backed jail reform agreement he signed with the Justice Department.

On Friday, the city said the sheriff should stop spending money for mounted patrols and various community improvement programs and events at the expense of jail improvements, and reiterated its contention that poor management has led to violence, security breaches, poor medical care and other problems at the jail.

Gusman's lawyers countered with the claim that "the city has opted to ignore its obligations under Louisiana law to provide a sufficient jail" and that the sheriff "is not legally required to subsidize or defray the costs of housing the city's inmates with any other revenue stream."

The latest war of words was played out in proposed "conclusions of law" each side filed for consideration by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk. The judge approved the reform agreement earlier this year and has presided over a series of hearings over how it will be funded.

Africk's decision Friday to postpone the Sept. 30 hearing dealing with funding issues will give the City Council time to consider the agreement Landrieu and Gusman reached earlier in the week over the proposed new jail building. It would supplement a $145 million jail building under construction and expected to open in March.

Potential problems with that building's design were first aired in May when lawyers for the inmates and the Justice Department filed papers saying it lacked space to separate the dangerous or the vulnerable from the general jail population. There also was no provision for an infirmary or clinic, and design flaws will make direct supervision of inmates difficult, hampering efforts to curb prison violence, the papers said.

Agreeing on the construction of another new facility - known as Phase III because it will follow construction of a kitchen, warehouse and electrical generator building and the new, 1,483-prisoner jail - was a rare moment of accord between the sheriff and the city.

It will, however, require modification of a 2011 City Council ordinance authorizing the new building.

That ordinance required that the building currently under construction be able to house all types of inmates, with a population cap of 1,483. According to this week's court documents, Landrieu will recommend that the council amend the ordinance to eliminate the requirement that the building hold all classifications of inmates.

Also, the ordinance would be changed to allow an existing jail building, slated for closure, to remain open with renovations to temporarily house inmates as needed until the next new building - the size and scope of which is to be determined - is complete.

All of the construction is being funded with Federal Emergency Management Agency money.

Gusman reached an accord with the U.S. Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center late last year, settling a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates over violent, unsanitary conditions at the jail. Africk approved the agreement over objections from Landrieu, who said the city shouldn't be saddled with the costs of the reform agreement, estimated at more than $20 million annually.

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