'Why would I deal with inmates for $11.91 an hour?' Gusman aide blames low pay for problems at troubled jail _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Inmates look out onto the Pontchartrain expressway from the new Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans in September.

Wanted: dedicated deputies to supervise hundreds of violent inmates at understaffed jail subject to federal consent decree. Pay: $12 an hour.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office hasn’t been quite that overt in its pitch to prospective hires. But it’s become increasingly difficult for the agency to sugarcoat the job of guarding the Orleans Justice Center, a lockup mired in turmoil.

“Why would I come deal with the inmates for $11.91 an hour?” Seandra Buchanan, Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s director of human resources, said Wednesday. “One of the things we’re doing is trying to make our agency an employer of choice,” rather than a last resort, “and I don’t think we can do that offering these salaries.”

Deputies’ pay took center stage Wednesday at a continuing hearing in federal court that will determine whether Gusman remains at the helm of the city’s jail.

The U.S. Justice Department and local inmates suing Gusman over conditions in the jail have asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to appoint an outside administrator to take over management of the Orleans Justice Center.

The government and the inmates, represented by the MacArthur Justice Center law firm, claim the sheriff has failed to uphold his end of a federal consent decree, or court-ordered plan to reform the jail, that Gusman signed more than three years ago. The result, they say, is that inmates are in grave danger of having their constitutional rights violated in a violence-plagued jail.

In recent days, Africk has heard a series of experts testify that violence is out of control at the jail, and that the Sheriff’s Office has made little to no progress when it comes to improving conditions for inmates and deputies.

Staffing shortages have become so acute that the Sheriff’s Office has relocated hundreds of local inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana. Still, portions of the new jail are often unsupervised, leading to vicious attacks.

Gusman has defended his record and blamed the jail’s problems on a lack of funding from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which is required by law to pay for the care of local inmates.

Deputies’ pay has been a flash point in the long-running dispute between City Hall and the Sheriff’s Office, with Gusman claiming he won’t be able to fully staff the jail until city leaders approve raises for his employees.

For its part, the Landrieu administration has accused the sheriff of spending recklessly on jail contracts and questioned whether he is grossly overpaying higher-ranking deputies. City leaders also have taken issue when Gusman compares his deputies’ pay to that of city police officers, saying that correctional officers nationwide earn less than cops tasked with policing the streets.

Local deputies can supplement their incomes significantly by working off-duty security details for local businesses or at special events. But Buchanan testified Wednesday that meager starting pay nevertheless has been a deal-breaker for would-be hires.

“We’re in this predicament because we have one of the lowest pay scales in the city at this time,” Buchanan told the judge. “It’s hard to retain employees when someone’s been here for 25 years and they only make $13 an hour.”

“They can’t afford to take care of their families,” she added. “Most of them actually love what they do, but they feel like they’re undervalued because we’re not paying them enough.”

Africk challenged Buchanan’s claim that salary is the primary cause of turnover at the Sheriff’s Office, noting that employees are aware of the pay before taking the job. She responded that having a job at the Sheriff’s Office is better than none at all.

The Sheriff’s Office has encountered a number of other obstacles in its efforts to bolster its ranks. For instance, there is the almost constant negative publicity associated with the jail. Recent headlines dissuaded at least one recent applicant from following through on a scheduled interview, Buchanan said.

Many applicants are immediately disqualified because of their criminal histories or their association with some of the inmates they would be guarding. “New Orleans is a very small city,” Buchanan said. “The familiarity between the applicants and the inmates is extremely high.”

The attrition at the Sheriff’s Office also has been driven by misconduct cases that result in firings and resignations.

Further, Buchanan said, a number of deputies quit after the opening of the new $150 million jail, in large part because they did not want to “directly supervise” inmates. Under that policy, the new jail requires some deputies to be stationed on the inside of housing pods — an approach intended to promote interaction among inmates and guards.

The team of experts appointed to monitor the progress of the jail reforms has acknowledged that deputy salaries are hurting recruitment. But they have said a host of other issues are standing in the way and that the Sheriff’s Office must overhaul its culture and “institutional leadership.”

“The monitors are of the opinion that salary alone is not the reason why people don’t apply for a job, accept a job or leave a job” at the Sheriff’s Office, the experts wrote in a recent report. “The quality of the workplace, the work hours and conditions, the effectiveness of supervisors, chances for upward mobility and personal safety all figure into decisions.”

The hearing is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. Monday. Gusman himself is expected to take the witness stand next week.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.