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DOJ Seeks Outside Control for New Orleans Jail

(CN) - The Justice Department has asked a federal judge to appoint a third party to operate the troubled New Orleans jail, saying the city's sheriff utterly failed to fulfill promises to improve conditions there.

The 61-page filing in New Orleans Federal Court also asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to hold Sheriff Marlin Gusman in contempt over his alleged failure to enact changes mandated by a settlement agreement between the jail and the federal government.

In its filing, the Justice Department concedes that the request to place the jail in receivership is extraordinary, "so too in the level of harm that continues to plague the jail."

Several prisoners sued Gusman and several other jail officials in April 2012, their class action claiming court intervention was needed to "protect them from abusive and unconstitutional conditions of confinement."

"Individuals housed at the jail are at imminent risk of serious harm. Rapes, sexual assaults, and beatings are common place throughout the facility. Violence regularly occurs at the hands of sheriffs' deputies, as well as other prisoners," the complaint continued. "The facility is full of homemade knives, or "shanks." People living with serious mental illnesses languish without treatment, left vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. These conditions have created a public safety crisis that affects the entire City of New Orleans. The jail is oversized, understaffed, and Sheriff Gusman's classification and security policies and practices are dangerously deficient."

The Justice Department intervened on Sept. 25, 2012, and a settlement was hammered out in mid-2013. The most tangible result of the agreement occurred last September, when inmates were moved from crumbling old jail buildings to a new and better equipped facility.

But in March, a court-appointed independent monitor, Susan McCampbell, said many problems, including rampant violence within the jail's walls continued unabated.

The report also said ongoing disagreements between Gusman and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu over jail funding and management issues has exacerbated the problems.

Landrieu never liked the settlement agreement, believing it placed responsibility for reforms in the hands of an official Gusman that he has no faith in, while obligating the city to cover the costs.

The receiver that the Justice Department is seeking would have complete authority over the operation of the jail, it's budget, and employment and other contractual relationships.

In a written statement released after the Justice Department's motion was filed on Monday, Landrieu said the agency's action "speaks for itself."

"It is in the best interests of our taxpayers and our public safety that the jail is run competently and constitutionally," the mayor said.

Gusman has not yet commented publicly on the Justice Department filing.

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