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Brendan McCarthy / Eyewitness News
Email: bmccarthy@wwltv.com | Twitter: @bmccarthyWWL

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office settled a federal civil rights lawsuit this week after his agency wrongly withheld books and magazines from prison inmates.

The settlement comes at a crucial time for Gusman. A federal consent decree looms over his agency and several other lawsuits are alleging wrongdoing or inhumane conditions at Orleans Parish Prison.

In the latest case, Gusman's office will pay a magazine and book distributor $15,000 and legal fees.

The company's attorney, Mary Howell, noted that Gusman's office also had to re-write its policy on inmate mail.

'It just re-establishes the law that has been in effect for about 30 years, again, which is that prisoners and book distributors and publishers have First Amendment rights. The expression that's often used is that these constitutional rights don't stop at the jailhouse door.'

Howell and Prison Legal News sued Gusman last fall. They said Gusman's office barred books, magazines and newspapers from the jail.

In court, attorneys for Gusman denied liability, but eventually agreed to rewrite their policies.

It's likely the first of many changes to come at OPP.

The U.S. Justice Department found inadequate staffing levels, widespread violence and subpar mental health care at the prison. Federal authorities pulled federal inmates from the jail this spring.

And a federal consent decree is imminent. Gusman has acknowledged that the proposed decree has grown in scope and size in recent months.

The jail continues to be under attack in the courthouse. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a class-action lawsuit alleging overcrowded cells, deputy misconduct and more.

Howell, a longtime civil rights attorney, said she is watching these other lawsuits closely.

'There's a lot of things happening in the jail and I'm hoping there is a positive outcome,' Howell said. 'It's a time of pretty serious transition on a lot of fronts and hopefully they'll be changes taking place before too long.'

Gusman's spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

The new inmate mail policy can be viewed online at the sheriff's website.

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