When Sheriff Marlin Gusman opened the city’s new $150 million jail last year, he declared it a “new day” for New Orleans inmates and the deputies tasked with supervising them. The notoriously dangerous Orleans Parish Prison had closed for good, he said.
Less than six months later, much of the dysfunction that defined OPP has cropped up at the newly opened Orleans Justice Center, where an “absolutely unacceptable” level of violence has taken hold, a team of outside corrections experts reported Tuesday.
Despite court-ordered reforms overseen by the U.S. Justice Department, the monitors said stabbings and assaults have continued unabated as Gusman struggles to hire enough deputies to staff the 1,438-bed facility.
“We had been very hopeful that when the new jail opened there would be a decrease in the level of inmate-inmate violence and use of force” by deputies, Susan McCampbell, the lead monitor, told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk. “I’m here to tell you that has not happened.”
McCampbell said the new lockup is dangerously understaffed and the deputies Gusman has managed to keep on the job “do not know how to run” the jail.
“The staff are not in control of the facility,” McCampbell said. “Just because you have a warm body doesn’t mean you have the right person.”
The new facility was designed to allow deputies to directly supervise inmates, a hands-on approach that Gusman described as a game-changer. The old jail’s layout hindered sight lines and made it difficult to spot trouble quickly.
But the new building has not solved staffing shortages or inadequate training, according to the monitors. McCampbell said scores of jailhouse attacks go unreported to the monitoring team, and some have been ignored by deputies altogether despite hundreds of surveillance cameras.
McCampbell said her team recently discovered a medical log at the jail that revealed as many as 119 incidents the Sheriff’s Office failed to act on or even report to the monitors, including “things like broken hands, needs for stitches. Some of them are traumatic injuries.”
Margo Frasier, a former sheriff from Austin, Texas, who is monitoring correctional practices at the jail, told Africk the Sheriff’s Office has been underreporting the number of jailhouse attacks. “I have significant concerns regarding interference or downright stopping of investigations,” she added.
Frasier said the Sheriff’s Office also realigned its internal affairs unit without consulting the monitoring team.
That move appears to have occurred around the time the new jail opened in September, according to internal Sheriff’s Office records obtained by The New Orleans Advocate. The records show that Gusman’s chief corrections deputy, Carmen Desadier, transferred the Intelligence Division to under her command, citing a need to “get all of the sergeants in line.”
John Ladd, a Sheriff’s Office sergeant who retired recently, said in an interview last year that Desadier had “shut down” several contraband investigations before deputies could determine the origin of the smuggled items. “She’s trying to close everything down to improve the numbers,” Ladd said.
Despite obvious frustration from the monitoring team, Tuesday’s hearing proved anticlimactic when it came to Gusman’s own testimony. The sheriff had been called to explain the staffing crisis that recently prompted him to move several hundred inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana.
After sitting silently through the hearing, Gusman briefly addressed Africk about deputy retention. The sheriff also spoke about his agency’s unsuccessful efforts to find jails closer than East Carroll and Franklin parishes to house inmates awaiting trial.
Africk warned at the end of the hearing that he is becoming “more frustrated with the slow pace” of the reforms. “We can’t continue down this path,” he said.
Gusman has blamed Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration for the staffing crisis, saying the Sheriff’s Office can’t recruit new hires because the city refuses to raise deputies’ pay. “Until that happens, we believe we’re going to continue to experience these high turnover rates,” said Blake Arcuri, a Gusman attorney.
McCampbell, however, said low pay is only one of many reasons deputies are quitting. “My experience tells me that the wrong people were hired,” she said.
Norris Henderson, a former convict and member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said he had expected Africk to address Gusman more directly about conditions at the jail. The judge expressed concern about the deteriorating situation but did not explicitly criticize Gusman, who generally has avoided appearing at court proceedings.
“This borders on malfeasance in office,” Henderson said, referring to the sheriff.
Katie Schwartzmann, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney whose class-action lawsuit prompted the federal supervision of the jail, said security issues have less to do with a shortage of money than with a “dysfunctional institutional culture” at the Sheriff’s Office.
“There was a real opportunity to change the culture and improve the jail when ... the new building (opened), both for prisoners and for staff,” she said. “But that has been botched, too. It’s honestly hard to see a path forward with the present jail leadership, but we have to try to find one.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.