With future leadership up in air, more instances of violence reported at Orleans jail _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Sheriff Marlin Gusman walks to the podium before a news conference last week.

A team of experts on Friday issued a scathing report blasting Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman over worsening conditions at the city’s new jail, describing a “day-to-day crisis environment” endangering both inmates and deputies.

Not only has the sheriff made “no progress” over the past six months toward implementing court-ordered reforms, the experts said, but he actually has overseen a “regression” in the state of affairs since the opening last year of the $150 million Orleans Justice Center.

The sheriff for years had promised that the new lockup — and the shuttering of the dilapidated Orleans Parish Prison — would bring the Sheriff’s Office within reach of operating a constitutional jail. But violence has continued at the new facility amid staffing shortages and plummeting morale among the ranks.

The outside experts, appointed by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to oversee the reform effort, said there are “competent and dedicated individuals working hard to keep the jail afloat, but their work is overshadowed and defeated by” the Sheriff’s Office’s “negative internal culture and lack of commitment at the leadership level to achieve and sustain compliance” with a federal consent decree.

Sheriff’s Office “leadership vocalizes their commitment to achieving compliance, but their actions, observed for more than two years, don’t support the rhetoric,” the experts, known as monitors, wrote in the 178-page report.

The monitoring team, led by Susan McCampbell, added that the sheriff has been “unable to demonstrate improvement in the protection of inmates from harm.”

The consent decree — an agreement struck among the Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice and inmate advocates — outlines 173 provisions intended to reduce the number of jailhouse attacks and improve the overall treatment of inmates.

The semiannual progress report released Friday concluded that Gusman so far has reached “substantial compliance” with just 10 of those requirements, two fewer than six months ago. The Sheriff’s Office was found “partially compliant” with 114 of the consent decree’s provisions as of August, but that number since has fallen to 96.

“All involved in this process are exceedingly frustrated,” the experts wrote. “There are so many issues that are a priority to address involving critical safety issues, it is overwhelming to contemplate.”

Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, said the report shows that the city’s jail “remains a disaster” four years after she filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Orleans Parish inmates. The consent decree represented a settlement of that litigation, but the inmates’ attorneys maintain the right to seek sanctions against Gusman for failing to overhaul the jail.

“Moving into a shiny, expensive new jail building didn’t fix the fundamental lack of vision and leadership at the Sheriff’s Office,” Schwartzmann said. “Sheriff Gusman has been in office for over a decade, so he can’t blame the problems on the previous sheriff or Katrina.”

Gusman released a statement saying the Sheriff’s Office “has made great progress in the last year, from establishing dozens of new policies and procedures to moving more than 1,200 inmates into the new Orleans Justice Center in a matter of days last September.”

“We also recognize that there is more work to be done,” he added.

The sheriff has blamed his agency’s high turnover rate and hiring struggles on city officials’ refusal to approve pay raises for deputies.

“How can the (Sheriff’s Office) create a career development plan for our deputies when these professionals are faced with salaries that are comparable to what they could make at a fast-food restaurant?” Gusman asked in his statement Friday. “Addressing the ‘internal culture’ concerns outlined in this report begins with a living wage for our professionals.”

The monitors did not dispute the need for deputies to be paid a “competitive wage,” but they questioned Gusman’s allocation of existing resources and stressed there are “other issues that must be simultaneously addressed to assure the hiring and retention of employees.”

The report offered a grim outlook regarding Gusman’s prospects for replacing Carmen DeSadier, the chief corrections deputy who resigned last month from one of the most critical positions within the Sheriff’s Office.

“The monitors believe that the ‘reputation’ of (the Sheriff’s Office) in the nationwide jail community makes filling this now-vacant position with a qualified individual quite challenging,” the monitors wrote.

Referring to the Sheriff’s Office’s efforts to overhaul the jail more generally, the monitors added that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”

“Therefore, we have grave concerns for the future,” they wrote.

Follow Jim Mustian, on Twitter, @JimMustian.