NEW ORLEANS -- Testimony concerning a landmark consent decree over the Orleans Parish Prison complex continued Wednesday with more withering criticism of Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his facilities.
The most anticipated testimony yet, of Gusman himself, was postponed until Thursday morning.
Gusman has avoided the spotlight and the countless inquiries from the media this week, amid shocking revelations unveiled in a federal court case over the proposed consent decree.
During three days of testimony, the court has heard stories of atrocities inside the jail. The court watched videos, taken by an inmate, that showed prisoners playing with a loaded gun, drinking beers, snorting and smoking drugs, making phone calls -- all while locked inside a cell.
Several jail experts have testified about their reviews of the troubled jail. A national prison consultant called the Orleans Parish Prison complex one of the worst jails he’s ever seen, and one of the worst large-city jails in the country.
Gusman has previously acknowledged shortfalls at the jail, but has denied that conditions there are unconstitutional. And come Thursday morning, he’ll be on the witness stand in federal court.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is hearing the testimony as he weighs whether to accept the proposed consent decree before him.
In a fairness hearing, litigants air grievances regarding the decree and the judge hears from the people involved.
In comments during testimony this week, Judge Africk made it clear, he believes change is needed at the jail.
“It has to be made better,”Judge Africk said in an exchange with a city attorney.
On the stand Wednesday morning, New Orleans Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin echoed themes repeatedly pounded on by attorneys for the city: a broad, costly consent order would have a grave impact on city residents.
Kopplin noted that money would have to be diverted from the city’s public safety budget, which accounts for roughly 60 percent of the city’s overall budget.
A U.S. Department of Justice attorney pressed Kopplin: "Why can’t the city divert funds outside its public safety budget for jail reforms?"
“Not without devastating consequences,” Kopplin replied. “It is not a reasonable expectation.”
The city has portrayed Gusman as negligent, irresponsible and asleep at the wheel. Meanwhile, Gusman’s office has painted the city as reluctant to step in, and ignorant to his pleas for funding and additional resources.
The city has suggested that Gusman’s office and the jail should be placed into federal receivership. At an event Wednesday morning, Mayor Mitch Landrieu explained further.
“It’s clear that you need to have a federal receiver in that job,” he said. “We have precedent for that in this city. [Housing Authority of New Orleans] is currently under receivership and it has been for the past few years. And I think it’s clear that the entire management practice over at the prison has just been terrible and they have broken down and fallen down.”
Meanwhile, in court, Landrieu’s top deputy further put the onus on Gusman and his agency, saying it’s the sheriff’s responsibility to maintain constitutional conditions at the jail. And Kopplin suggested it should be Gusman on the hook for financing the reforms.
Kopplin also reiterated comments made by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, alleging the Department of Justice and Gusman didn’t fully engage the city in consent decree negotiations. Kopplin portrayed the feds as coming to the city late in the game, saying the Landrieu administration was “issued an ultimatum” that it had to pay millions to fund the decree.
But U.S. District Judge Lance Africk shot down that notion, noting that city attorneys had previously indicated they were involved in negotiations last year.
“Those negotiations absolutely took place,” said the judge, who has presided over the case since its inception. “That is a fact.”
Much of Kopplin’s testimony focused on the funding battle between the city and Gusman. That issue will be at the center of a separate trial, slated for late May, so long as Judge Africk signs off on the proposed consent decree.
The funding trial will be an even more bitter battle, with the sheriff and the city arguing over who should be responsible for footing the bill for jail reforms.
The city owns most of the jail facilities and pays the sheriff a fee for housing inmates.
A decades-old, different consent decree – Hamilton, et al. v. Schiro, et al. – outlines how the city pays the sheriff a per diem on each inmate.
That decree mandated that the sheriff, from 1990 through 2002, receive $19.65 per inmate, per day from the city. Through the years, costs and prison population rose. That rate eventually increased to the current $22.39.
The city also pays $3.2 million each year for medical expenses and services. That rate has not increased since 2003.
Also on Wednesday, an inmate with mental health issues talked of deplorable conditions at the jail’s medical tier: mold on the walls, leaking toilets and water on the floor.
“It’s deplorable, it’s horrible,” he said.
Aaron Steel also testified about fights and stabbings in the temporary housing tents. He said it took about 10 to 15 minutes for guards to respond to these incidents.
Asked why he agreed to testify, Steel said he wants to make an impact.
“I want to see changes, for the younger guys that come in the prison after me, so they won’t have to go through this,” he said.
His testimony followed that of a former inmate, who told the judge Monday about rampant violence and abuse, including his own sexual assault and beating.
The Department of Justice has investigated the state of the jail since 2008. The agency has issued several scathing critiques of the complex and demanded reforms. Yet, the feds never took the matter to court.
Last April, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action civil rights lawsuit against Gusman, alleging inhumane jail conditions and a myriad of constitutional violations.
In September, the Department Justice joined the SPLC suit, and has used the court case as a vehicle for the consent decree.
Gusman had largely thumbed his nose at the Department of Justice through the years, knocking down their criticisms. That changed last summer amid the litigation.
And in December, Gusman, the SPLC and the feds came up with the proposed consent decree.