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Report: Jail conditions violate inmates' rights

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MICHAEL KUNZELMAN | September 22, 2009 07:52 PM EST | AP

NEW ORLEANS — Violent guards, understaffing and unsanitary conditions violate the constitutional rights of inmates at a New Orleans jail heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, a Justice Department report concludes.

A report on the department's investigation, released Monday and dated Sept. 11, said that Orleans Parish Prison doesn't adequately protect inmates from excessive force by staff and physical harm from other inmates.

The investigation also concluded that inmates aren't receiving adequate mental health care and face health risks from unsafe and unsanitary conditions, including broken toilets, mice and cockroaches as well as "obvious electrical hazards."

The report by an official from the Justice Department's civil rights division commends Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his staff for repairing damage to the jail from the August 2005 hurricane.

But the department warns that it may file a lawsuit if conditions don't improve.

"We would prefer, however, to resolve this matter by working cooperatively with you and are confident that we will be able to do so," acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King wrote.

In a statement Tuesday, Gusman said the report is based on outdated information and is "replete with inaccuracies and half truths."

Gusman said the jail has a "zero tolerance policy" for violence by staff members and inmates. He also touted improvements in the jail's medical care services and housing facilities.

"This report is a terribly dated, fundamentally flawed work done by people who obviously have little appreciation of the tasks facing a city in recovery from the greatest national disaster in this country's history," Gusman said.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said the report "corroborates everything we've been saying for many years" about the jail's conditions.

"This was an investigation we asked for because we knew there were serious problems," she said.

The jail's current capacity is around 2,500 inmates, down from an average of 6,500 before Katrina, according to the report. The jail consisted of 12 buildings before the storm; it currently operates six buildings staffed by around 450 security officers.

The report described 10 instances of inmate-on-inmate assaults and said the jail doesn't have staffing levels that are adequate to protect inmates.

Federal investigators inspected the jail three times last year and saw mice and cockroaches, dozens of broken toilets, sinks and drains, according to the report.

The report also cited examples in which officers "openly engaged in abusive and retaliatory conduct, which resulted in serious injuries to inmates."

Gusman said jail officials investigated all the excessive forces cases cited by the report and punished the officers involved.

"Our track record of care, custody and control and in keeping our city safe by doing our job is very good," he added. "We have a job to do and we do it well."