Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office brass sought Tuesday to calm a federal judge’s concerns over violence at the city’s jail, insisting deputies are in control of the Orleans Justice Center despite chronic staffing shortages.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s top lieutenants told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk that the number of inmate-on-inmate attacks has fallen steadily in recent months and that no stabbings have occurred at the new lockup since it opened in September. The now-shuttered Orleans Parish Prison had been notorious for stabbings.
“It’s mostly fistfights, wrestling matches, pushing and shoving, things of that nature,” said Michael Laughlin, the sheriff’s newly appointed chief of investigations. “We house violent offenders, and, unfortunately, some of them understand that the only way they’re going to fix their problems is through violence.”
The Sheriff’s Office called upon Laughlin and Carmen DeSadier, Gusman’s chief of corrections, to testify at a federal court hearing that will determine whether the sheriff remains in charge of the jail or is ordered to hand over the keys to an outside administrator. The hearing is expected to last the rest of the week, with the sheriff himself scheduled to take the stand.
The U.S. Justice Department and a group of inmates who filed a lawsuit over jail conditions have asked Africk to appoint a so-called receiver to take over management of the lockup, citing an “unacceptable” level of violence. They contend Gusman lacks the leadership ability and experience to carry out a host of jail reforms that were ordered three years ago as part of a federal consent decree.
On Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Office tried to rebut days of expert testimony that portrayed the jail as a rudderless ship, where inmates are often left unsupervised. Nonetheless, Gusman remained on the defensive throughout the day, even as his attorneys began calling witnesses in an attempt to demonstrate the Sheriff’s Office has made progress, however haltingly.
DeSadier, who reports directly to Gusman, attributed the dysfunction at the jail to the growing pains of moving hundreds of inmates and deputies into a new housing facility.
For years, the sheriff blamed the jailhouse violence in New Orleans on inadequate facilities — a campus of dilapidated buildings that took on heavy damage in Hurricane Katrina.
But while he touted the $150 million Orleans Justice Center as the long-awaited remedy, DeSadier testified that the opening of the new jail ushered in its own set of challenges and actually has impeded the court-ordered reforms in some respects.
She described the Sheriff’s Office’s struggles in retaining deputies, saying some of them have expressed fear and even quit because they are expected to “directly supervise” inmates in the new facility. That modern approach places at least one guard on the inside of the housing pods, where they are expected to interact with inmates.
“They were accustomed to supervising inmates through glass and brick walls,” DeSadier said, “and now they are required to spend 12 hours with them in an open area.”
DeSadier faced a withering cross-examination from attorneys for the plaintiff inmates, the Justice Department and the city, who sought to portray the chief of corrections as uninformed and overmatched for the task of cleaning up the jail.
She acknowledged she has read only some of the most recent findings published by the team of experts Africk appointed to monitor the reforms.
Africk himself grilled DeSadier at times. Sounding like the prosecutor he once was, the judge demanded to know why she never told him that an internal power struggle within the Sheriff’s Office was affecting progress at the jail. That rift prompted DeSadier to quit earlier this year, but she returned in May after the sheriff’s chief deputy, Gerald “Jerry” Ursin, resigned amid a scandal involving off-duty details.
“Should it take more than a conversation to tell a deputy that he should not be sitting” around on the job, Africk asked, referring to an expert’s earlier testimony that guards in the jail appeared to be “cemented” to their seats. “We shouldn’t have people sitting around like that, should we?”
DeSadier pushed back against earlier testimony in which experts suggested she has underreported violence in the jail to make it appear that conditions have improved. She said internal investigations have increased on her watch because she has used the jail’s hundreds of surveillance cameras to uncover deputy misconduct and inaccurate reporting.
DeSadier said she believes it’s going to take “a great deal of time” to satisfy the consent decree’s demands.
Echoing the sheriff’s recent statements, she told Africk she believed it would be unreasonable to expect wholesale change to occur overnight.
“There’s no such thing as a totally safe and secure jail,” she said. “There are always going to be incidents in the jail.”
It’s unclear when Africk will rule on whether to appoint a receiver. The hearing resumes at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.