Citing a “pervasive culture of violence and neglect” inside the city’s newly opened jail, a group of local pastors joined an inmate advocacy group Monday in calling for the resignation of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
The religious leaders gathered in front of the Orleans Justice Center, a $150 million lockup that by some measures has become as dysfunctional as its predecessor, the notorious Orleans Parish Prison.
Despite a federally monitored reform effort, jailhouse attacks continue, and a shortage of guards has prompted the sheriff to send hundreds of pretrial inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana.
Earlier this month, a 63-year-old boxing instructor hanged himself in a shower at the jail, underscoring lapses in inmate supervision.
“The culture of violence and neglect that has plagued OPP continues into the new jail,” said Norris Henderson, a member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and executive director of the group Voice Of The Ex-offender. “We have waited 12 years for the changes Gusman promised, and now we are demanding that he get out of the way so that the changes our community needs can finally be implemented.”
Some of the pastors spoke critically of the sheriff, including Leonard Lucas, of Light City Church, who said he supported Gusman during each of his campaigns. Lucas apologized for not speaking out sooner and for “ignoring the cries” of those behind bars in New Orleans.
“Marlin is our friend, but he treats us like he is our enemy,” Lucas said in an interview. “Our people are suffering, and we need some help. Marlin is not the man to help us. He’s proven to not be the leader we voted in.”
One of the pastors present refused to identify himself or comment on his attendance at the news conference.
The ministers, including the Rev. Corey Watson, issued a statement ahead of the news conference saying they would no longer support a sheriff “who continues to mismanage our jail, and who seeks to add more beds to a jail that already warehouses too many of our community members.”
Gusman has been an outspoken advocate of constructing a so-called Phase III jail building designed to house special inmate populations.
“We would not be responsible leaders if we allowed irresponsible things to happen to our community,” the ministers said in the statement. “As we celebrate Passion Week, isn’t it divinely ironic that we as leaders don’t want to repeat the errors of Pontius Pilate and wash our hands as our brothers and sisters are being crucified in the Orleans Parish jail.”
James Williams, an attorney for Gusman, said the sheriff “has no intention of resigning.”
He told reporters the new jail is “leaps and bounds and light years” ahead of the conditions at the recently shuttered OPP — conditions deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.
“Things aren’t where they need to be,” Williams said in acknowledgment, “but they certainly aren’t what they used to be.”
Gusman issued a statement last week saying he recently had led a group of religious leaders on a tour of the new jail, “culminating with a stop at the new Religious Services Room inside the correctional facility.”
The tour may have been intended to pre-empt Monday’s news conference, which has been in the works for weeks, and the sheriff issued a news release that said Pastor Jamaal Weathersby, of New Hope Baptist Church, was impressed by the design of the new jail.
“Because of the way the building has been arranged, it feels as though the inmates’ human rights have been accommodated,” the sheriff quoted Weathersby as saying. “This facility changed my mind in that regard.”
A team of correctional experts appointed to monitor conditions at the jail has expressed concern in recent months about lack of leadership at the Sheriff’s Office. Last week, the experts released a report warning of a “day-to-day crisis environment” at the jail.
Williams, however, said the perception generated by the monitors’ report “is probably not reflective of what’s actually going on in the jail.”
Monday’s group “is just a very small group of clergy, some of whom weren’t even comfortable identifying themselves,” Williams said, “and yet there are also members of the faith-based community that have been coming to the jail, seeing the progress that has been made first-hand, on a rolling basis.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.