NEW ORLEANS – A contempt motion against the sheriff who runs the New Orleans jail was dismissed Friday after lawyers for inmates and the Justice Department said they were pleased with steps being taken to improve fire safety at the lockup.
Earlier this week, those lawyers had sought a contempt ruling against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, citing problems with fire alarms and sprinklers at the complex. They argued that inmates were in danger and that the lack of fire protection and safety measures put Gusman in violation of a court-backed reform plan for the jail, which is formally known as the Orleans Parish Prison.
Lawyers for Gusman and for the city of New Orleans, which funds the jail, responded with filings of their own. They noted that the problems were confined mostly to buildings that were more than 80 years old, and that a new jail is expected to open later this year. They also noted that repairs are being made and that jail personnel have established fire watches to help ensure inmate safety.
"Plaintiffs are very pleased to learn that improvements are underway to address the long-standing fire safety issues at OPP," lawyers for the inmates and the Justice Department said in a Friday filing.
That was followed by an order from U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who dismissed the contempt motion against Gusman and canceled a Monday hearing on the fire safety issues.
Africk set a May 16 meeting with lawyers to further discuss the fire safety issues.
Conditions at the jail have been the subject of litigation for many years. In 2012, as a result of a lawsuit, Gusman reached an agreement with inmates and the U.S. Justice Department on reforms meant to address problems, including violence, that have resulted in inmate deaths and injuries, poor medical care, unsanitary conditions, drug use and escapes.
Fixes are expected to cost several million dollars annually as personnel shortages are addressed — costs that have led to political and legal arguments between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration over funding.