With the landmark settlement approved earlier this week, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman can walk away from the threat of a federal takeover with his head held high. And that’s about all he gets out of the arrangement.
Speaking to reporters outside of court, Gusman insisted he remains in charge of the deeply troubled Orleans Parish jail — even as he signed away unprecedented operational and financial control to an independent compliance director who’ll answer mainly to a federal judge.
The seizure Gusman averted by settling with the U.S. Justice Department, inmate advocates and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration amounted to the nuclear option, and there were some powerful arguments against such a move.
Local political and religious figures worried about undermining a duly elected black official in a majority-black city. U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, wrote to DOJ warning that receivership “could unintentionally roll back some of the hard-fought civil rights and voting rights gains that have been achieved in Orleans Parish” and “would ask New Orleanians to foot the bill for their own de facto disenfranchisement.”
From the opposite end of the spectrum, Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who made his name as a tea party congressman, told The Advocate editorial board that he’d quietly weighed in on Gusman’s behalf to avoid what he deemed Washington overreach.
The arguments for drastic change, though, were even stronger. Years of court proceedings showed that the constitutional rights of inmates have been routinely violated, and despite a consent decree mandating change and a modern new jail, horrific violence and Keystone Kops-level mismanagement persisted.
As U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said in approving the settlement Tuesday, “the Constitution does not mandate a comfortable jail but neither does it permit an inhumane one.”
The agreement itself suggests how far from humane the conditions remain, despite the opening of the new facility that Gusman once touted as the solution to many long-standing problems.
According to the Justice Department’s news release, “the court found the sheriff in noncompliance with the consent judgment’s provisions on prisoner supervision, suicide prevention, use of force, incident reporting and tracking, prisoner grievances, investigations, classification, youthful prisoners and sanitation and environmental health.” That, it goes without saying, is quite the list.
Gusman has long claimed that things are improving and that Landrieu’s administration has refused to give him the resources he needs to hire and retain staff. Landrieu, in an editorial board meeting with The Advocate this week, made it clear he sees the agreement as vindication of his contention otherwise.
Still, Gusman’s doing his best to focus on the positive.
He pointed out that the agreement lets him choose the compliance director, although it says he must select the person from a short list submitted by the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and the Landrieu administration, and approved by Africk.
He noted that the new official must seek his advice and approval for reforms, although the agreement says that requirement becomes moot if it causes “unreasonable delay.” Gusman also gets approval over an initial remedial action plan, to be filed in the compliance director’s first 90 days, but the agreement says the sheriff’s OK “shall not be unreasonably withheld” and that disputes will be settled by the judge.
He described his role in the new arrangement as something of a delegator, even though the agreement specifies that the compliance director will have final authority over the jail and the prisoners and “will be answerable only to the court.”
As much as Gusman’s pride is on the line here, he’s actually got even more at stake. He’s up for re-election next fall, and some of his critics are said to be quietly seeking a candidate they can sell as a better steward for when the jail reverts to local control.
So no wonder Gusman is trying to frame this latest development as something far short of a no-confidence vote. If he decides to run again, he’s got an awful lot of spinning to do.