NEW ORLEANS - A federal court hearing regarding the pending federal consent decree over the Orleans Parish Prison complex began Monday with testimony from a former inmate who described being sexually assaulted and severely beaten.
The inmate talked of being hog-tied, beaten with a mop handle and bucket, doused in urine and more.
“If I had screamed, ‘Guard, guard, guard, help me,’ I would have perished that night,” he said.
His testimony is part of a fairness hearing in federal court. A judge is weighing whether to accept the proposed consent decree, as agreed upon by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the U.S. Justice Department and Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
Also on Monday, a national expert on prison and jail facilities talked about his review of the Orleans Parish Prison complex. Jeffrey Schwartz called it one of the worst jails he's ever seen, and likely one of the worst city jails in the whole country.
Schwartz talked of runaway violence, lax supervision, shoddy internal investigations and more.
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry sat in on Schwartz’s testimony.
"The specific factual incidents that he recounted were pretty shocking in terms of the lack of policy, the lack of staffing, follow through on investigations, a failure to investigate in many cases, instances of complaints of misconduct and abuse,” she said.
An attorney for the Justice Department said there are roughly 700 assaults reported each year inside the prison facilities.
The hearing stems from a class action lawsuit filed early last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group alleged various abuses and inhumane conditions in the jail. The U.S. Justice Department later latched on to the suit, and are using it to serve as a vehicle for a consent decree.
In December, the plaintiffs reached in an agreement with Sheriff Marlin Gusman on a series of broad reforms.
Gusman has refused to acknowledge that the conditions inside his jail are unconstitutional, but he did agree to the wholesale raft of reforms.
His attorney noted in court that Gusman believes “for the most part” that it is a good consent decree.
The proposed decree outlines 12 areas of reform. They include: protection from harm from physical and sexual assaults, suicide prevention, mental health care, medical care, sanitation, training, quality assurance/performance improvement, fire and environmental hazard safety, limited English proficiency services, and improved policies, procedures and practices.
But Gusman's office has brought Mayor Mitch Landrieu into the mix, alleging that City Hall has grossly underfunded the city jail. And the two sides remain locked in a battle over who will pay the bills. Landrieu is staunchly opposed to funding the decree, and city attorneys have objected to the agreement.
For decades, the city has paid the sheriff a per diem on each inmate he houses. The daily rate is currently $22.39. The city also pays $3.2 million each year for medical expenses and services.
The city has suggested the jail should be put under federal receivership, and claims there is no evidence that constitutional deficiencies at the jail are due to a lack of funds.
The fairness hearing is expected to last through the week. The plaintiffs are expected to call several additional witnesses and experts. Attorneys for Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office will present their case, followed by attorneys for the City of New Orleans. Gusman is likely to testify.
A separate federal court hearing on the fight over consent decree funding is scheduled for late May.