Kevin McGill / The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS -- Inmates' lawyers and the U.S. Justice Department say the current design of a $145 million jail under construction in New Orleans won't meet requirements of a reform agreement signed by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
In papers filed at federal court, they say the facility lacks space to separately house mentally or physically ill inmates, suicidal inmates, youthful offenders or others who need to be separated from the general prisoner population.
There is 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 say.
Gusman says the jail was designed in accordance with American Correctional Association standards and meets requirements of a city ordinance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is providing construction funds.
The jail reform agreement was reached in December, the result of a lawsuit filed on inmates' behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center and later joined by the Justice Department.
Thursday's filing by the plaintiffs not only raises questions about the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office's ability to meet constitutional prison standards when it occupies the new jail, it also blunts an argument by the city of New Orleans, which opposes the jail agreement because of its potential costs.
"The city has strongly argued that certain provisions of the proposed Consent Judgment are unnecessary because the new jail facilities will bring OPSO into compliance with the Constitution and ameliorate some claims, including those pertaining to the physical plant," the court filing said.
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city would have no comment.
The inmate and Justice attorneys said they toured the existing jail last week and met with managers for construction of the new one.
"In that meeting, it became alarmingly clear that neither the parties nor the Court can rely on the new jail facility to achieve constitutional conditions without modification and planning," the plaintiffs said.
One problem is that the new jail has 24 housing units, each with a capacity for 60 inmates (20 units each holding 30 two-bed cells, plus four 60-bed dormitories). There are no units to house what is expected to be a relatively small number of prisoners who need to bunk separately.
Another worry cited by the plaintiffs is that the design does not provide jailers with good lines of sight to directly supervise inmates.
Lack of such direct supervision was evident earlier this year when a 2009 video surfaced showing inmates brazenly using drugs and brandishing a loaded gun in a cell. Beatings and sexual assault are a persistent problem at the jail, according to court testimony.
"The same violence will continue into the new building," the plaintiffs said in their filing. "Plaintiffs are very concerned that the OPSO staff will continue to do as they have always done: sit in the control booth and talk with one another, rather than supervise the tier, and that this will allow the rapes, stabbings and beatings to continue."
The jail reform agreement, awaiting formal approval by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, was reached months after Landrieu's administration had reached a separate agreement on reforms of the city-run New Orleans Police Department. Landrieu later tried to get out of that agreement, saying the potential costs of both pacts could run into tens of millions of dollars a year and force the financially strapped city to lay off workers, including police officers, and cut services.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan refused on Thursday to vacate the police agreement, a decision the city is appealing.