by Anitra Brown

GusmanLately, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has been under fire from multiple directions. And we do mean fire. There are citizens’ groups calling for Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s resignation. Then there is the most recent update on the federal consent decree order—a report that has been interpreted and construed to spin different narratives depending on the storyteller. And it all gets compounded by a legislative auditor’s report that, among other things, contends ineligible OPSO employees have received supplemental pay, mentions questionable dealings by a deputy sheriff in the operation of his private security business, and points to an instance in which the sheriff’s office failed to properly apply public bid law for a renovation project at the House of Detention.

In mid-March, 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 pointed to the suicide deaths of Ryan Miller last March and Cleveland Tumblin and the death of Calvin Thomas last November along with incidents of violence inside the jail as examples of why he must go. They criticized Gusman’s desire to add a third phase expansion to the Orleans Justice Center as an attempt to increase the size of the jail and cited the consent decree monitor’s report statistics related to violence.

But Gusman confidently asserts that what the report shows is progress. In a printed statement, he said:

“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.”

Weeks have passed since that protest and the issuance of the consent decree monitor’s report, and Sheriff Gusman has taken to vehemently defending his record, attending community meetings and firing off responses. Gusman spoke to a coalition of community leaders and activities in early April at a meeting of Justice and Beyond. Later that same week, he made a presentation at Beacon Light Church, inviting residents to his State of the Jail presentation.

And in addition to reaching out to the community, Gusman is challenging and contesting criticisms lodge at his office at every turn. When the legislative auditor’s report was released, Gusman wasted no time responding, first in a letter to legislative auditor Daryl Purpera, Robert Tarcza of Tarcza & Associates responded to the audit on Gusman’s behalf. It reads, in part:

“Your report identifies 56 deputies whom you suggest may be ineligible for supplemental pay. The Sheriff respectfully disagrees and asked us to provide you with some examples and an explanation of why he disagrees.”

The letter goes on to cite examples of the deputies assigned to various areas in OPSO’s operation such as the kitchen and the mechanic shop. It disagrees with the auditor’s assessment that those jobs are not eligible for supplemental pay by explaining that the deputy assigned to the kitchen is not primarily a cook but oversees and secures the kitchen area when inmates work there and that the deputy assigned to mechanic shop is not in a purely administrative position because he transports and oversees inmates working in the shop—making both eligible for the extra pay.

Then in early April after the auditor’s report began making headlines, Gusman released a public statement challenging a number of issues in the audit.

“We strongly disagree with the position taken by the Legislative Auditor in challenging the entitlement of some OPSO deputies to receive State Supplemental Pay.  As the Legislative Auditor himself admits, there is a process under Louisiana law to raise the issue of whether a deputy is entitled to State Supplemental Pay.  An independent board of review (the Deputy Sheriffs Supplemental Pay Board) hears all such objections and passes on the initial application of each deputy to receive State Supplemental Pay.  Any challenge is heard by the supplemental pay board and any adverse determination may be appealed to the courts. I believe my office has fully complied with the law and if any objection can be made to a deputy’s entitlement to receive State Supplemental Pay, the objection must be filed with the independent board of review.  The Legislative Auditor does not make the determination on State Supplemental Pay issues.”

As for the investigation of Col. Roy Austin, Gusman has said he is fully cooperating with an investigation in the matter and had this to say in a printed statement:

“The report also outlined the activities of Roy Austin. Those activities were independent of OPSO business and related to a private business that Austin allegedly created. Austin retired from the OPSO last year and is no longer affiliated in any capacity.  The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office continues to cooperate fully with each step of the investigation involving Roy Austin.”
And on the waterproofing project at the House of Detention, Gusman said:

“This particular contract was handled improperly in that the contractor with the low bid was not properly licensed even though the bid documents required a properly licensed contractor.  The chief procurement officer, who was responsible for vetting the bidders for that contract, was terminated and is no longer affiliated with the OPSO.”

Sheriff Gusman recently issued another statement with a resolute tone regarding the consent decree report and how he believes it is being misused by some to falsely impugn his efforts to bring the jail up to the standards outlined in the decree:

“Lawyers suing the OPSO and activists who profit from antagonizing the Sheriff’s Office and carrying out secret agendas are purposefully fabricating a dispute between myself and the federal consent decree monitors. I voluntarily agreed to the consent decree, because I am committed to the process necessary to improve conditions for inmates housed in Orleans Parish.

An integral part of that process is the federal monitors who oversee the reforms I volunteered to implement. The monitors were selected by consensus, I agreed to their appointment, and I have since taken every observation and recommendation from the monitors seriously. Any suggestion otherwise is merely an attempt to further disparage me and create divisiveness between the OPSO and the monitors who are working together to improve conditions within the jail.

The monitors accurately reported the number of incidents that occurred in the jail from January through February 2016. Lawyers suing the OPSO and other instigators cleverly misconstrued these statistics with the misleading statements about the levels of violence in the Orleans Justice Center.

The Sheriff’s Office unequivocally rejects those attempting to disrupt its cooperative relationship with the monitoring team by infusing tension. The Sheriff’s Office was allowed to review, provide input on and discuss the report with the monitors before it was finalized. The monitors are experts, and we appreciated the opportunity to provide feedback on their report.

Critiques are a vital part of improvement, and we always welcome the monitors’ critiques. Again, our disagreement is not with the monitors but with those who are corrupting our collaborative process, which includes some well-deserved criticisms, by injecting division and hostility.”

Even as he defends his record on a number of fronts, Gusman himself recognizes that he still has work to do. 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.

The New Orleans Tribune 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.

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.

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.

During The Tribune interview, Gusman also talked about his ongoing financial needs in properly running the parish prison, saying many of the issues he faces are tied to funding issues, reminding that he does not control the jail’s budget, which is allotted by the city of New Orleans.

He recently went to the City requesting $3 million in emergency funding for the first quarter of the year. Gusman has said that the $44 million budget is simply insufficient to adequately operate the jail and implement needed improvements, adding that he needs about $59 million to fully fund the jail in 2016.

And the ongoing battle with the City around funding is discussed in the most recent consent decree 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 sheriff. 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.”

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 over funding and how much it takes to run the jail takes center stage.

“Ultimately, you 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.”

Meanwhile, Gusman continues to move forward, recently announcing that Carmen DeSadier will return to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office as Chief of Corrections effective May 2.
DeSadier joined OPSO last May from Chicago (Cook County,) but abruptly resigned from OPSO in February after less than a year on the job.

Now DeSadier says she is ready to get back to work.

“I am pleased to be returning to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and look forward to advancing the progress made towards compliance with the consent decree.”

The announcement of her return came in the wake of the resignation of Jerry Ursin, a former top deputy with OPSO who resigned in early April after the release the legislative auditor’s report that questioned overpayments for private detail work.

Our Take

The New Orleans Tribune has not been timid when it comes to expressing its concern that the attacks and criticisms lodged against OPSO under Gusman’s leadership are little more than insidious attempt to undermine his credibility and sway public opinion without a full examination of complex issues presented by our criminal justice system. The goal—to take what is still one of the most powerful positions in this city out of his control.

To be sure, the official that manages the jail directs a large budget, oversees lucrative contracts, and generally stands in a position of influence. Also, Marlin Gusman is one of only five city-wide Black elected officials (not counting members of the judiciary). 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.

So 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 and what we, too, believe is a politically-motivated hole-and-corner agenda amounting to little more than a power play.

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 any 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.

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.

Indeed, 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 close 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 impossible. 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 across the country increased for three consecutive years from 2010-2013.

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 fact remains that there is a criminal justice crisis in New Orleans. And OPSO along with other criminal justice and law enforcement agencies as well as the local business and education communities must play a role in addressing. OPSO cannot do much without the resources it needs, and nothing good will happen without cooperation. It is troubling, in fact, that some in city leadership cannot seem to make the connection that many entities and agencies must work together to make New Orleans a better place to live. Here at The Tribune, we were taken aback when Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s press secretary Hayne Rainey reportedly had this to say in response Sheriff Gusman’s request for the $3 million in emergency funding:

“As with all city-funded entities, we fully expect the sheriff to manage his budget in a responsible manner because New Orleanians demand that their tax dollars be used wisely. Every dollar spent at the jail is a dollar not spent making our streets safer…”

Now, there are two problems with that statement. First, we have yet to see any evidence that OPSO’s budget is being mismanaged. To suggest that is the case is careless if not incendiary, to say the least. And secondly and perhaps more importantly, contrary to what the Mayor’s press secretary thinks, the exact opposite of his statement is true. To be sure, every dollar spent at the jail—dollars spent ensuring the safety and well-being of inmates, dollars spent training and keeping qualified staff, dollars spent providing inmates with training, social work services, mental health services, rehabilitative services and the like in the hope that they are better men and women when they return to society—is a dollar that IS indeed spent making our streets safer.

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