Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s face was expressionless as he strode out of the federal courthouse on a recent morning, dodging reporters and digesting the latest criticism of his office.
He had heard much of it before from the experts keeping tabs on the city’s jail, including their warning that deputies have lost control of the newly opened Orleans Justice Center.
The situation has grown so dire that the experts, known as monitors, recommended this month that parts of the facility be closed until the sheriff retrains his staff and reins in the violence at the lockup.
But during a whirlwind week in which his chief deputy resigned and a legislative audit accused the Sheriff’s Office of several financial improprieties, Gusman also received a stinging rebuke from the bench.
At the end of a hearing in federal court, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk raised a question that has taken on new urgency: After years of treading water, is the Sheriff’s Office incapable of reforming conditions at the jail?
Africk stopped short of answering that query, but he said it’s one that “must be vetted” amid the turmoil engulfing Gusman and a recent report that described the jail as a degenerating “crisis environment.”
The judge’s remarks seemed to invite the U.S. Justice Department and inmate advocates to pursue fresh legal remedies against the sheriff, perhaps in the form of contempt proceedings for his failure to hold up his end of a 3-year-old federal consent decree that mandated sweeping changes at the jail.
But Africk also invoked the possibility that an outside party, known as a receiver, could take over day-to-day management of the jail — a once-rejected proposal that has re-emerged amid a series of setbacks at the Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s leadership increasingly has been called into question by the monitors, who only a few months ago seemed willing to afford Gusman the benefit of the doubt.
“At this stage of the litigation,” Africk said, referring to the class-action lawsuit filed in 2012 by inmates seeking better conditions at the jail, “we’ve arrived at a point where the issue of whether the sheriff is capable of achieving compliance with the consent decree ... should be addressed.”
Without offering specifics, Laura Coon, a Justice Department attorney, told the judge that she anticipates “seeking intervention from the court in the coming weeks.” The Sheriff’s Office, she added, is not “on the same page” with the federal government.
“We are skeptical that the noncompliance can be cured short of extraordinary measures,” Coon said.
Africk has limited options when it comes to hastening the pace of change. He seems unlikely to levy financial sanctions against the Sheriff’s Office, which receives its jail-related funding from City Hall.
But the judge could consider removing Gusman from control of the jail and appoint a receiver to try to turn it around — a move that would strip the sheriff of his primary responsibilities, though he would keep his title. In such a scenario, the receiver essentially would be handed the keys to the jail and tasked with bringing its conditions in line with the Constitution.
Such an action “doesn’t happen very often,” said Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit watchdog in Berkeley, California.
However, three years of failure to bring the jail up to mandated standards “is long enough in my view for a receivership to be considered,” said Specter, whose organization filed a lawsuit that landed California’s prison health care system in receivership about a decade ago.
“The constitutional or statutory violations have to be very serious, and you have to show the jail administrators are ineffective,” he added. “There has to be very little hope that the (local) government can comply with the consent decree on its own.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed for the now-shuttered Orleans Parish Prison to be placed in receivership in 2013, when city attorneys contended it was “highly unlikely, if not a certitude, that anything will improve” on Gusman’s watch.
The mayor’s proposal followed the release of shocking videos, shot in mid-2009, that showed inmates using drugs in jail and walking the streets when they were supposed to be behind bars — footage that drew widespread attention to the jail’s dysfunctional conditions.
“Given the long and tortured history involving OPP, no consent decree, even as appropriately modified and tailored, will be effective unless the leadership changes,” Harry Rosenberg, an attorney for the city, wrote in an April 2013 court filing. “If the current situation does not justify the appointment of a receiver, nothing does.”
Landrieu’s bid went nowhere, as the Justice Department and even some local Gusman critics considered it premature at the time. The government preferred to give the sheriff — who has held office since 2004 — an opportunity to fix the jail according to a detailed blueprint for change.
Warning from monitors
Africk never decided the merits of receivership, instead approving the consent decree as a settlement of the class-action lawsuit. That plan spelled out 173 provisions for reforming the jail, including a rewrite of Sheriff’s Office policies.
But the judge also left the door open for city leaders to “re-urge” their push for receivership should the reforms prove ineffectual.
Today, the vast majority of the consent decree’s provisions remain unfulfilled, as the Sheriff’s Office has been plagued by soaring staff turnover rates and what Gusman insists is a lack of adequate funding from the city. City Hall, for its part, attributes the jail’s woes to managerial incompetence.
The monitors warned recently that the Sheriff’s Office has taken several steps back over the past six months, despite the opening of a new $150 million facility that Gusman for years had promised would be a game-changer for inmates and deputies alike.
In 2013, the Sheriff’s Office vehemently opposed the appointment of a receiver, arguing in court filings that placing “the blame for the present situation on Sheriff Gusman, much less to suggest he should be stripped of virtually all powers and responsibilities ... is patently wrong.”
Three years later, however, the sheriff might decide to embrace the idea as a means of finally receiving sufficient funding for the jail, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, who has sometimes defended the sheriff from his critics.
“I think that receivership is a strong possibility,” said Goyeneche, who has followed the jail litigation closely and who attended the most recent proceedings before Africk. “I think, in some ways, it may be in both the short- and long-term best interests of the city and public safety to see something changed in this equation. If we don’t change the equation, I think we’re going to continue to be at an impasse.”
Among the many unanswered questions is how the appointment of a receiver would affect the funding standoff between Gusman and Landrieu.
Goyeneche predicted that receivership ultimately would cost the city more money, because the receiver likely would petition Africk directly for funding needed to carry out the reforms. So far, the judge has declined to micromanage the budgetary disputes, saying he prefers to allow the political system to play out, but he could in effect order the city to pay millions of dollars more.
“What has happened is that managerial mistakes (in the Sheriff’s Office) have essentially convinced city leaders that giving the sheriff the resources he’s requested would not produce the desired results,” Goyeneche said. “Essentially, what the receiver is going to be charged with doing is accelerating and moving the jail into compliance with the consent decree. Finances will not be an impediment.”
Many of the problems at the Orleans Justice Center stem from poor inmate supervision, which appears, for example, to have played a role in the suicide last month of a 63-year-old inmate who hanged himself in the shower.
A mental health expert testified this month that he had been astonished to discover the new jail was built with shower doors that inmates can lock from the inside. The expert, Dr. Raymond Patterson, told Africk the locks should have been removed months ago, but no one at the jail seemed to grasp the risk they posed.
Guards often are not available to intervene when problems arise, even when inmates are assaulting one another, said Ceris Wainright, a local woman who spent 18 days behind bars this year on an allegation of domestic abuse battery.
Wainright, 59, said she endured “subhuman conditions” and became gravely ill because the facility did not have the medications she needed.
“Dante’s Inferno has nothing on this place,” she said. “The inmates were running the asylum.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.