On April 2, 2012, 10 prisoners at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) -- the New Orleans jail -- brought this class action suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against the Orleans Parish Sheriff, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, asked for both declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that they suffered from abusive and unconstitutional treatment while confined at the jail.
The complaint alleged that the jail imposed endemic and egregious constitutional violations on its prisoners, detailing an incredible level of violence within the facility, both at the hands of staff and prisoners. It alleged that officials handled prisoners with mental health issues in an inhumane manner, including withholding medication from new inmates and taking inadequate steps to safeguard the lives of suicidal prisoners. The plaintiffs also alleged that the jail was inadequately staffed and supervised.
Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division had opened an investigation into conditions of confinement at the jail, filing a notice of investigation in 2008 and making formal public findings of egregiously dangerous conditions on September 11, 2009. The DOJ findings letter had, like the complaint in this lawsuit, detailed widespread excessive force and failures to protect prisoners, inadequate medical and mental health care, inadequate suicide prevention, and a dangerous physical plant. Just after this lawsuit was filed, the Justice Department sent an additional findings letter, setting out a list of deficiencies that necessitated emergency measures to address them.
In September 2012, the US, with the consent of the parties, intervened in this case under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Title VI claim was that the jail discriminated against Latino prisoners in failing to provide necessary language services to prisoners with limited English proficiency. The Sheriff then filed a third-party complaint against the city of New Orleans, alleging that jail deficiencies were caused by the city's refusal to provide adequate funding.
In December 2012, the Sheriff, the private plaintiffs, and the DOJ reached a settlement. Besides setting out substantive terms about improved conditions, and provisions for monitoring and enforcement, the proposed consent judgment set forth a funding process: it required the Court to "determine the initial funding needed to ensure constitutional conditions of confinement at OPP, in accordance with the terms of this Agreement," at a "funding trial" in which the city would participate.
However, the city of New Orleans objected vehemently to the settlement's expansive terms, which it argued far exceeded the constitutional minimum requirements, in violation of its rights and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA disallows any federal court enforceable jail or prison decree that isn't narrowly tailored to cure ongoing constitutional violations. The city pointed out that it would be required to fund the millions of dollars (perhaps as much as $35 million) the settlement would cost. Moreover, it complained, it had just entered into an extremely expensive settlement of its own with the DOJ Civil Rights Division, to reform the scandal-ridden New Orleans Police Department. (This case, United States v. New Orleans, is in this Clearinghouse as PN-LA-0001
). The money for this settlement was simply unavailable, the city told Judge Africk.
After briefing, Judge Africk on January 22, 2013, granted preliminary approval of the settlement and scheduled a fairness hearing, at which he would examine it more thoroughly. In the months leading up to the fairness hearing, the city sought appointment of a receiver to run the jail, arguing that what was needed was not additional money but rather a change in control; the City blamed poor conditions on the Sheriff and his management.
The fairness hearing took 4 days, beginning April 1, 2013, with a good deal of additional briefing and discussion following. On June 6, 2013, Judge Africk rejected the city's arguments in a 103 page ruling, pointing out that elected Sheriffs frequently settle cases on their county or city's dime. He granted the motion for the consent judgment and the class certification, entering the proposed judgment. Judge Africk ruled that the jail was indeed imposing systemically unconstitutional conditions on its prisoners, describing a horrifying level of violence, untreated illness, and dysfunction. The consent judgment's provisions were narrowly drawn and necessary to remedy those ongoing violations.
The consent judgment is a comprehensive reform document, requiring wholesale changes to jail operations, and a monitor to assist/ensure that changes happen. The parties agreed to new policies regarding protection from harm; mental health care; medical care; sanitation and environmental conditions; fire and life safety; language assistance; and youthful prisoners. Specific provisions of the agreement included improved documentation of abuse by prisoners and staff; review of prison conditions and officials; new policies regarding the use of force against prisoners; a mandated separation of teenaged and adult prisoners; and a revised staffing plan to ensure that enough are officers are provided to protect prisoners. The injunction has no set end date; it will be lifted after the jail has remained in substantial compliance with the settlement agreement for a period of two years. It is court enforceable by the plaintiffs and the US.
The funding hearing was held in August, 2013. On September 3, 2013, Judge Africk dismissed the City's motion to appoint a receiver without prejudice to the City's right to re-urge its motion at a later date. On September 9, 2013, Judge Africk appointed Susan W. McCampbell as the lead monitor pursuant to the consent judgment, as well as submonitors. On September 12, 2013, Judge Africk also ordered the Sheriff and the City to each provide $105,000 for the purpose of paying the monitoring costs through the end of the year.
On October 10, 2013, Judge Africk approved the consent judgment on attorneys' fees. The Sheriff had to pay $900,000 in full and final settlement of all fees and costs.
On October 21, 2013, Judge Africk approved the settlement agreement agreed to by all parties regarding the issue of funding between the Sheriff and the City. The City agreed to pay $1.8 million in interim funding for the fiscal year of 2013. The City did not agree to pay any specific level of funding for 2014 and beyond. On April 17, 2014, Judge Africk granted the joint motion for entry of a settlement agreement detailing more of the changes the Sheriff was to make and the uses for the funds provided by the City, including funds that had not yet been allocated.
The case is ongoing as of July 14, 2014.Jonathan Forman - 07/05/2013
Jessica Kincaid - 07/14/2014