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Justice Department orders reforms at New Orleans prison

By Kathy Finn

(Reuters) - The Justice Department will order extensive reforms of a problem-plagued New Orleans prison where reports of prisoner abuse have been rampant in recent years, federal and local officials announced Tuesday.

Agreed upon reforms at Orleans Parish Prison call for improving prisoner safety from physical and sexual assaults, suicide prevention measures, health care services and language services for non-English-speakers.

The agreement, which is known as a consent decree and is pending approval from a federal judge, follows an investigation by the Justice Department, which joined in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of prisoners.

The suit complained of widespread violence at the prison, abuse by prison guards and availability of contraband including knives. It described the jail as understaffed and said deputies are poorly trained.

The Justice Department's April investigation report described the prison as "a violent and dangerous institution" with "shockingly high rates of serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence and officer misconduct." The report noted five deaths by suicide during the previous two years and said that prisoners live in an "atmosphere of fear" that they will be beaten, raped or otherwise abused.

Prisoners at risk of harming themselves are housed in a filthy, cramped "suicide tank" with no bed or toilet, while prison officials are "deliberately indifferent" to prisoners with medical needs, the report stated.

Conditions at the prison have been "dangerous and unacceptable" for too long, said the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez.

"Arrest for a criminal offense should not subject anyone to a sentence of physical and sexual assaults, inadequate medical care, and risks of suicide and mental health decomposition," Perez said in a statement.

A consent decree already is pending between the Justice Department and the New Orleans Police Department requiring reforms in police hiring, management and operations. Federal and city officials in July signed the agreement, which awaits approval by a federal judge.

In a statement posted on the prison's website, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman noted that construction is under way on a new prison "that will form the backbone of a better public safety organization."

He said his office has struggled since the prison was badly flooded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "Over the last eight years, the Sheriff's Office has traveled on a journey of unprecedented issues and challenges," he said.

"This agreement filed today is a significant next step in our journey to create one of the best public safety operations in the country," Gusman said.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Osterman)

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