NEW ORLEANS -- Orleans Parish Prison remains a dangerous place for inmates, but the sheriff's office has made short-term progress in complying with a sweeping consent decree to improve conditions, according to the chief monitor assigned to oversee progress under the federal lawsuit.
After inspecting the jail during several visits last fall, Monitor Susan McCampbell reported that the lockup continues to have problems protecting inmates from violence and substandard health care, but she gave credit to Sheriff Marlin Gusman for taking initial steps required under the agreement.
In a scorecard of the required improvements filed in federal court Thursday, the sheriff's office was graded to be in partial compliance with 10 of 95 improvements that could be measured. McCampbell stated the progress was a good first step.
'It is evident to the monitoring team that OPSO has been working to comply with some of the provisions of the Consent Judgment before monitors arrived on site,' McCampbell wrote. 'While there remains substantial work to be done, these initiatives are positive steps.'
The report highlighted several measures taken by Gusman since the judgment became final in October. Those include:
-- The hiring of a professional correctional administrator following a national search. Michael Tidwell, a corrections official from Florida, was hired in November.
-- Starting a process to overhaul classification of inmates.
-- Expanding the hours of psychiatric care given to inmates with mental illness.
Gusman responded with a press release stating the Sheriff's Office intention to 'continue its aggressive path to progress.'
'We face challenges and we are making every effort to improve,' the statement reads. 'Our work prior to the first report is ahead of schedule compared with jails of similar size facing compliance requirements. We will continue to cooperate with the monitoring team and we will continue to achieve compliance in due course.'
The report is the first of many required by the monitoring team as the sheriff's office works toward compliance.
The next couple of reports should be more revealing as the sheriff's office plans to open its new FEMA-funded jail in the spring, allowing it to close some of the older lockups.
The sheriff's office must also find more money to pay for an anticipated increase in deputies and other employees to meet the federal requirements.
The consent decree stems from a lawsuit filed in 2012 by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of the inmates. The suit detailed a host of unconstitutional conditions, including beatings, rapes, rampant contraband, unsanitary conditions, poor medical care and lack of treatment for the mentally ill.
A series of court hearings before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk included a showing of the now-infamous video shot by inmates inside a jail cell showing them drinking beer, snorting and smoking drugs and playing with a loaded gun.