A recent University of New Orleans poll found that 40 percent of the people surveyed actually approve of beleaguered Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s job performance.
I’m not sure who those people are — they can’t all work for him — but I have a pretty good idea of who they’re not.
Disapproval of Gusman’s oversight of the violence-plagued jail runs deep among residents, 45 percent of whom find fault with the sheriff’s management, according to the poll. And it’s off the charts among those who’ve been pushing for years to bring the facility up to basic constitutional standards.
That latter group, which includes both lawyers representing inmates and the U.S. Justice Department, said this week that they’ve had enough. More than three years after Gusman signed a consent decree agreeing to meet a series of benchmarks aimed at protecting the lives and rights of those who pass through the jail’s doors, they went back to court to ask a federal judge to take the responsibility out of the sheriff’s hands and give it to an appointed receiver.
The only real question is what took the plaintiffs and the government so long.
“The conditions at the Orleans Parish jail system … violate the Constitution in significant ways that affect the safety and health of the prisoners,” the petition says. “Unacceptably high levels of prisoner assaults, staff excessive use of force, and suicide and self-harm continue to pose grave risks of harm.”
“The sheriff not only has failed or refused to comply with the consent judgment, he has proven to be incapable of taking action necessary to comply,” it said.
The horrifying stories are so regular that it’s tempting for those without a direct stake to tune them out. But here’s a sampling of recent headlines:
Chief corrections officer Carmen DeSadier, an outsider brought in to shape things up, resigned, citing an ugly power struggle with the office’s second-in-command, Jerry Ursin.
Soon afterward, Ursin quit following a damning legislative audit and reports of an FBI investigation over allegations he and another top deputy, Roy Austin, had used Sheriff’s Office time and resources to run an off-duty detail operation that billed local businesses for “ghost” deputies who never worked the events in question. Austin already has been charged and is expected to plead guilty next month, and DeSadier agreed to return once Ursin was gone.
Meanwhile, one expert told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk that the Sheriff’s Office appeared to be underreporting the number of jailhouse attacks.
And inmate deaths seem to make news with alarming regularity, including the suicide of a mentally ill inmate who was able to lock a shower door and hang himself. The shower was in the long-awaited $150 million jail that was constructed under Gusman’s supervision, the same one that was supposed to alleviate so many problems the sheriff blamed on the old, outdated facilities he inherited and that were damaged in Hurricane Katrina.
Actually, part of the reason Africk and the government gave Gusman such a long leash was that the new jail was due to come on line. While under construction, Gusman donned a hard hat and led media tours to show off the place. He cast it as a panacea, a modern, direct-supervision facility that would allow deputies to keep a much closer watch.
But eight months after the move, it’s amazing how little a change in scenery altered conditions. Weeks ago, the lead consent decree monitor asked Africk to consider shuttering parts of the jail until deputies could be properly trained to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence.
“It’s a hard recommendation to make, but if it were up to us, we would close the facility floor by floor until it can be successfully operated,” the expert, Susan McCampbell, said in court. “We’re really regressing to what should have happened in September (when the building opened) to make this a safe and secure environment.”
Gusman’s response to all this and more has been a truly astonishing defiance.
At nearly every turn, he’s blamed Mayor Mitch Landrieu for not funding the office at the level he seeks. He hosted a bizarrely upbeat “state of the sheriff’s office” address following Ursin’s resignation, in which he painted the new developments as an opportunity to restructure operations “in a positive way.” His office has issued a series of strongly worded statements, including one castigating “lawyers suing the OPSO and activists who profit from antagonizing the Sheriff’s Office and carrying out secret agendas.”
In short, he seems hell-bent on reshaping both public and official opinion by force of will.
It would sure be nice to see that level of focus aimed at fixing the jail rather than the jailer’s reputation. Because just like the plaintiff lawyers and the government, I suspect more and more residents have decided that they’ve heard quite enough.