So Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman can walk away from the threat of a federal takeover with his head held high, while the deeply troubled jail he oversees will get a new leader who’ll have unprecedented operational and financial control and answer mainly to a federal judge.
Sounds about right.
The seizure Gusman averted by settling with the U.S. Justice Department and inmate advocates amounted to the nuclear option, and there were lots of strong arguments against such a move. Local religious and political figures worried about undermining a duly elected African-American official in a majority black city. From the opposite end of the spectrum, Republican 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 the takeover, though, were even stronger. Years of court proceedings showed that the constitutional rights of inmates were 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.”
Gusman, not surprisingly, is focusing on the positive. He said he’ll get to choose the new compliance director, but only 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.” He described his role in the new arrangement as something of a delegator.
Spin aside, the agreement clearly calls for the appointed administrator to take over much of Gusman’s role, just as next year’s election is starting to loom.
If Gusman plans to be a candidate again, he’ll have a lot more spinning to do between now and then.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.