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New Orleans agrees to pay for changes at city jail

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KEVIN McGILL | October 21, 2013 01:22 PM EST | AP

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NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The city of New Orleans will put up $1.88 million this year to pay for extra security and medical personnel and to raise base pay for staff at the city's jail under an agreement announced Monday during a brief hearing in U.S. District Court.

The money covers jail improvements required under a federal court order — the result of an agreement to improve conditions at the notoriously unsafe and unsanitary jail. That agreement was reached almost a year ago among lawyers for Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the U.S. Justice Department and inmates represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Monday's deal covers funding of the agreement's provisions for the remainder of 2013 and appeared to signal at least a temporary truce after months of legal and political arguments between Gusman, who runs the jail, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The city funds the jail, and Landrieu has lamented the potential costs of the agreement.

Gusman, Landrieu and the City Council still must work out budgets for future years to fund the improvements at the jail, officially known as Orleans Parish Prison.

Landrieu's recently released 2014 budget proposal included no money for implementation of the jail agreement. Estimates on future years' costs to implement the reforms have varied greatly, running as high as $22 million. Those costs could hinge to a large extent on the inmate population when a new jail building is opened next spring.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk praised the agreement and commended the city and sheriff for working to reach it. "Both the Sheriff and the Mayor had to make difficult decisions in this case that will influence the citizens of this community on a daily basis," Africk said in his written order.

Monday's announcement was in marked contrast to past months, when Gusman's lawyers accused Landrieu of a lack of leadership and city lawyers questioned Gusman's ability to run the jail.

To bolster their position, city officials noted inmate-made videos — discovered earlier this year and shown in open court — that displayed unabashed drug use, beer drinking and the brandishing of a loaded handgun in a cell. There also were scenes of a prisoner who had slipped away from the lockup brazenly walking the streets of the French Quarter. The video was made in 2009, largely in a now-closed building on the jail complex.

Testimony at some hearings included descriptions of sexual assaults, suicides and beatings by guards.

"We are pleased to reach an agreement with the Sheriff that will provide adequate funding for OPP for the remainder of 2013, and we will continue to work to ensure that, as in this case, the City can meet any funding requests made of us without having to layoff police officers or firefighters," Landrieu spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said in a statement from City Hall.

The agreement requires the spending of $500,000 for an unspecified number of additional medical staffers, $425,974 for salary increases, more than $390,000 for overtime and more than $250,000 to hire 42 additional security staffers.

"I'm pleased to be able to compensate jail security personnel at a rate that is more competitive with other law enforcement agencies," Gusman said in a news release.

The payment announced Monday is in addition to the per diem payments the City pays the Sheriff, which is $22.39 per inmate each day. The money will come from savings in the current year's city budget.