NEW ORLEANS - In light of intense federal scrutiny of his agency, Sheriff Marlin Gusman is seeking to include the city of New Orleans in a lawsuit against him, claiming the city should be on the hook to pay for reforms of the prison complex.
Attorneys for Gusman filed a motion Friday morning in a civil rights case lodged against him by the Southern Poverty Law Center and U.S. Justice Department. Those groups say Gusman operates a prison rife with constitutional violations.
Gusman responded Friday by asking to name the city as a defendant with him.
Gusman noted that he wants to implement many of the Justice Department’s recommendations, but that this will require extensive funding.
“The Sheriff has no significant source of revenue other than those he receives for housing detainees for the City. The Sheriff cannot responsibly make promises to the Court and the parties to take steps to change conditions at the jail unless and until he has financial resources to fulfill those commitments,” the motion reads.
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said earlier this week that city attorneys in recent months began taking part in negotiations with Gusman and the feds.
Landrieu said Friday that the city will ask to be involved in the process.
“Now that they’re looking to the city and the taxpayers of the city to pay for it, I have to protect the taxpayers’ interest and I have to make sure that jail is run appropriately. So, we’ll insert ourselves in those negotiations,” he said.
Gusman’s attorneys claim in the latest court motion that a settlement can’t be made without funds – funds that need to come from the City. They point to a longstanding “battle” over funding between the city and the sheriff’s office. The two agencies have sparred for decades in court and in legal filings.
A consent decree between the two 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.
“Despite repeated requests by the Sheriff to Council members and the Mayor over the last seven years, there has been no increase in funding by the City,” the court filing states.
Gusman and the jail have been under federal scrutiny for years. The feds claim they had made repeated attempts to work with Gusman and even sent over a draft consent decree last November.
The sides remained at odds. That may have changed in recent months, with the Justice Department and Gusman engaged in settlement discussions “for an extended period.” Court filings appear to indicate that a settlement is close.
“Those negotiations have been long and occasionally contentious, but the process has worked,” according to Gusman’s motion.
Katie Schwartzmann, the attorney who initiated the suit for the Southern Poverty Law center, took umbrage with Gusman’s assessment.
“In the last several years people have died in that jail, as well as been raped and beaten. The process has not worked,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We need to get reforms in place for our clients at the jail. The situation is urgent.
Schwartzmann filed the civil rights lawsuit in April. The Justice Department joined the suit against Gusman earlier this week.
That lawsuit highlights a myriad of incidents at the Orleans Parish Prison complex, and alleges inhumane conditions, rampant violence, discrimination, deputy misconduct and more. The DOJ claims Gusman had been indifferent to these issues and failed to remedy the situation despite repeated pleas.
The Justice Department notified Gusman in February 2008 that it would pursue an investigation into the prison complex, with attorneys seeking to determine whether there was a “pattern and practice” of civil rights violations within the facility.
Gusman’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Landrieu’s spokesman issued a released statement late Friday afternoon.
“The City had already planned to become involved in this lawsuit, and this third-party complaint does not allege that the City is liable for damages sustained by the plaintiffs. The City became involved in substantive negotiations regarding the financial impact of a consent decree for the Orleans Parish Prison complex in the last few months. We would expect that all parties would operate with the same diligence and thorough review as was done in the NOPD consent decree, especially considering the ongoing work that has been done on our administration’s part to ensure that we rebuild a right-sized jail and that we move to a fixed budget for the jail, which is a national best practice."