OPP Plaintiffs: "The Proposed Consent Judgment is devoid of steak and cognac."

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The plaintiffs in the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) consent decree case today dismissed the argument that a consent decree for the jail would force city government to write a "blank check" to the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, the city's main objection to a proposed consent decree for the jail. In contrast, the plaintiffs say in a new court filing, the decree will ensure that the city actually knows what it's spending its money on.

"As opposed to a 'blank check,' the Proposed Consent Judgment is giving the City, perhaps for the first time, a clear idea of how and where funds for OPP will be spent, says the reply, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of OPP inmates.

The plaintiffs argue that the city has thus far chosen to keep blindly funding the prison without demanding better accountability — through the annual budget process or through its party status in Hamilton v. Morial, a lawsuit that resulted in the current per diem rate — even after it had been made aware of the alleged abusive conditions there.

"The City has been formally on notice of deficient conditions at OPP since at least the United States’ 2009 Findings Letter. Since that time, the City has shelled out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to a constitutionally deficient facility, where people continued to be seriously injured and die. The City took no steps to protest, intervene, seek relief or remedy the conditions."

(More after the jump)

The total cost to bring the jail into compliance could run tens of millions per year above the allocation the sheriff's office already receives from the city. The largest expense will likely cover increased staff pay and new hires. Gusman's attorneys provided the city with at least one estimate on major expenses last summer.

According to today's filing, the plaintiffs agreed to let the city conduct its own staffing needs analysis but has not provided any results.

The city also cites a state law demanding that “no inmate shall have a standard of living better than the state poverty level. The city claims that inmates already receive more tax dollars per year than a person at the poverty level will earn.

From the city's filing (emphasis mine):

"While the City does not question that constitutional standards must be satisfied, the federal Courts, like the Legislature, have recognized that serving steaks and cognac to inmates is not a constitutional entitlement ... less than $5,578 is available for an entire year to a person in Louisiana at the poverty level. In contrast, at the current per diem paid by the City to the Sheriff, more than $8,281 is spent for each inmate for just housing and food."

The plaintiffs say that the city ignores the full law, which actually says that living standards must also comply with the United States Constitution. Furthermore:

"The Proposed Consent Judgment is devoid of steak and cognac, and is instead narrowly tailored toward keeping people in OPP—the City’s constituents—alive and safe, as is required by the Constitution."

The filing further counters the cities claim that the consent decree, as written, is overly broad, in that it orders Orleans Parish Marlin Gusman to "continue to" enforce policies the sheriff's office has already adopted.

"It cannot be reasonably argued that these provisions of the Consent Decree are 'narrowly drawn,' if they simply order the Sheriff to continue to do what he already does," reads the city's filing.

The plaintiffs say the "continue to" language came out of negotiations with the sheriff, who insisted he had adopted policies, for example requiring that guards conduct frequent rounds on housing tiers, but didn't actually provide any proof.

From the filing:

"As with every settlement, the Proposed Consent Judgment is a negotiated document, and in every negotiation there is give and take. The “continue to” language is the product of extensive negotiations, during which the Sheriff represented, without verification, that improvements had been made in certain areas. Plaintiffs’ Proposed Findings of Fact and expert reports confirm continued violations."

It continues with a reference to the city's request that the sheriff's office be placed under federal control:

"Ironically, at the same time the City critiques the 'continue to' language in a handful of provisions, the City advocates for perhaps the most intrusive remedy of all: receivership."

Read the complete filing: March4Jointreply.pdf

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