Sheriff Marlin Gusman demonstrates a security feature at the New Orleans Justice Center.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman demonstrates a security feature at the New Orleans Justice Center.

Call us apologists for Sheriff Marlin Gusman. We suppose we have been called worse. But we are convinced that the current firestorm the sheriff faces is little more than an attempt to usurp his position by interests that will happily use others to do their dirty work.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office still represents a positon of control, power and money; and Marlin Gusman, one of only five city-wide Black elected officials (not counting members of the judiciary) oversees it. Make no mistake, there are those who want to control who runs the jail for no other reason than to have a say in the contracts that are awarded, the people that are hired and the political influence that comes with it all.

Gusman became the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff in a 2004 special election after longtime Sheriff Charles Foti was elected state attorney general after serving as sheriff for 30 years. Gusman was re-elected in 2006, in 2010 when the civil and criminal sheriff’s positions were combined, and again in 2014.

By the way, in 2018, Gusman will be up for re-election. And if the people speak then and vote him out, fine. But some surreptitious call for him to resign, that we suspect is masterminded by unseen operators, does not sit well with us. Given that those who called for Gusman’s resignation know well that elected officials don’t just go around resigning positons because someone asks them to, their call is actually more of an insidious attempt to undermine his credibility and sway public opinion without a full examination of complex issues presented by our criminal justice system.

Has Gusman done a perfect job managing the jail? Some would say no. The fact is he himself recognizes that he still has work to do. He will tell you that. He also says he has made strides—not the least of which is ACTUALLY reducing the size of the jail. The inmate population in Orleans Parish is the smallest it has been in more than a decade.

We recently sat down with Gusman at the Orleans Justice Center, the new jail facility that replaces OPSO’s Intake & Processing Center and Templeman III and IV. The OJC has been in operation for about six months. With his usual unflappable air of reserved confidence, Gusman talks about what he considers accomplishments of his tenure and the improvements of the new jail. Along the tour, he points out enhanced security features, the open-view prisoner cells, guards inside the units, and guards at control centers.

On the day The New Orleans Tribune met with Gusman, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office had 1627 inmates under its control—a number that also included more than 300 Orleans Justice Center inmates that are technically “out of custody” and being housed in other facilities across the state, including St. Charles Parish, Hunts Correctional Center, the East Carroll Detention Center.

For any who continue to lament the size of the jail, the fact is that the population has been reduced by almost half of its March 2011 size when the number of inmates housed at OPP was about 3200. It is almost 73 percent smaller than it was just before Katrina hit, when the average daily population at the parish prison was about 6,000. And the jail population is down an astonishing 80 percent of the size it was when former sheriff Charles Foti’s left it, after running it from 1974 to 2004, during which time the jail population exploded from about 850 to about 8500.

If you doubt that there is a concerted effort to wrest control of the sheriff’s office from the hands of Gusman, specifically, and from Black leadership, generally, consider the effort in 2014 to bring back former sheriff Charles Foti, the man who oversaw OPP as it grew from a parish jail to a prison industrial complex, and pit him in the race against Gusman. Anyone who believed that Foti had the answer to running a better parish prison was fooling himself—or better still, trying to fool the people.

Also in mid-March, a critical report was released by the Consent Decree Monitor overseeing OPSO’s implementation of improvements at the jail. To be sure, the report paints a damning picture, listing dozens of areas that the sheriff’s office must improve in order to be in compliance with the federal decree. But Gusman does not see the report as all gloom and doom. In his printed response to the Monitor’s report, he states:

“The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has made great progress in the last year, from establishing dozens of new policies and procedures to moving more than 1,200 inmates into the new Orleans Justice Center in a matter of days last September. We also recognize that there is more work to be done. Today, the OPSO has achieved significant compliance in 10 areas, compared with two areas last January. The OPSO maintains partial compliance in 98 areas, an improvement of nearly 66 percent since January 2015. Finally, the OPSO has decreased the number of non-compliance items by nearly half, moving from 110 items last January to 61 today.”

LocaL ministers and members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition call on Gusman to resign.

Still, on Monday (March 21), a group of local ministers joined with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, to call Gusman out for what they say is his push to increase the size of the jail as well as ongoing mismanagement. They are the ones publicly calling for his resignation, citing the suicide deaths of Ryan Miller last March and Cleveland Tumblin just weeks ago and the death of Calvin Thomas last November as well as continued incidents of violence inside the jail as examples of why he must go.

This group is well within their rights to demand more of the sheriff. As an elected official, he represents their interests and ought to answer to the people.

The protestors that gathered are right about another thing. Gusman has said he needs a bigger jail and has pushed for a third phase expansion to house, among other things, inmates in need of acute mental health services, the infirmary, a laundry facility, a medical clinic as well as a family and attorney visitation area. A lack of funding and support has stalled that plan. However, if it should ever come to fruition, the sheriff says it would add an additional 340 beds to the already 1438-bed capacity of the jail—less than 1800 beds and still, even if filled to capacity, almost 80 percent smaller than the size of the local inmate population Gusman found when he became sheriff in 2004.

So yes, we worry when we hear people suggest that Gusman has had more than enough time to fix the issues at the jail. It is an unrealistic proposition to suggest that a condition that took 30 years to create and one that is exacerbated by all manner of outside forces should be all better in less than half that time. It seems that there is an unrealistic demand for perfection as opposed to progress fueled by double standards.

This brings us to the issue of violence at the jail. Whether we are talking inmate-on-inmate, staff-on-inmate, inmate-on-staff, or self-harm issues, we are certainly troubled by reports of violence in our city’s jail. And we have no doubt that there are problems—ones that must be addressed.

To be sure, the “culture of violence” that our Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been known to speak of finds a welcome home in our jail system. That’s bound to happen when violent offenders are arrested, imprisoned, and held in closed proximity to one another in overcrowded conditions. And unless and until that “culture of violence” is addressed at its root causes—poverty, miseducation, economic disparity, unemployment, social marginalization—the violence that plagues our streets will plague our prisons. Until more is done to address the causes of violence in our society, Gusman’s job will be even more difficult. And it just makes more sense to us to talk about what we can do to keep folk out of prison as opposed to how to keep them safe from one another once they are there. The harsh reality is that violence and death are a part of the American penal system. They occur there as they do in larger society. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (U.S. Department of Justice), the number of inmates that died in state prisons and local jails increased for three consecutive years from 2010-2013.

Too bad, the preachers and prison reformers that gathered outside the jail Monday calling for Gusman to resign didn’t protest just as vehemently against the crimes that took place against our public school system when it was decimated in the wake of Katrina or against the razing of public housing. Had they done so, perhaps our local jail would not be as full as it is even now.

Gusman says many of the problems are tied to funding issues. Gusman does not control the jail’s budget, which is allotted by the city of New Orleans. And when Gusman talks about the lack of resources that prevents him from offering better wages and results in a 40 percent annual turnover rate for his staff, the ongoing battle with the city over how much it takes to run the jail takes center stage.

“Ultimately, you’ve got to have the tools to do the job,” he told The Tribune. “With a starting pay of $26,000, our deputies are the lowest paid in the region. We’ve got to get salaries up so that we can be competitive and keep people here.”

Of course, we also believe that you have to start where you are, use what you have and do what you can, as the saying goes. As such, we, too, expect more from the Sheriff; but what we will not do is get caught up in a misguided effort to further wrest control from Black leadership in New Orleans.

Here are a few more realities to take into account. While the Orleans Parish Sheriff is charged with the care, custody and control of inmates, he does not control the size of the jail’s population. While they have arrest powers, OPSO deputies rarely use it. The size of the jail’s population is governed by NOPD arrests, whether accessible bonds are set when possible, and how quickly the district attorney’s office tries cases or releases suspects when they can’t make a case.

Finally, the political strife between the City and the sheriff’s office has had such an impact on the management of the jail that even the consent decree monitor had to write about it in her latest report.

In the executive summary of the 178 page report, Monitor Susan W. McCampbell writes:

“There are more than 3200 local jails in the United States, 80 (percent) of which are operated by an elected (s)heriff . While these organizations no doubt have funding and collaboration issues with their funding authorities, none have regressed to the level of dysfunction as in Orleans Parish.”

She echoes that sentiment in the conclusion of the report as well:

“Lastly, the toxic political environment in the Parish—regardless of the source or identifying who to ‘blame’—has not served to promote the safety of staff and inmates, compliance with the Consent Judgment, or to resolve any of the other critical issues.”

Huh, “toxic political environment in the Parish”. If resignations are to be tendered, it certainly sounds to us that more than one is due.