In the morass of slow-moving reforms at Orleans Parish Prison, Michael A. Tidwell, the corrections maven handed the keys to the lockup last year, had been regarded as a promising purveyor of change.
In the face of monumental adversity, Tidwell — who resigned Friday as chief corrections deputy — won praise for his efforts to right a ship that, in many respects, had already sunk, clashing with entrenched Sheriff’s Office veterans skeptical of an outsider’s input.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, the jurist overseeing the jail’s overhaul under the terms of a federal consent decree, openly admired Tidwell, calling his prior experience in running jails a welcome relief. “He has been a beacon of light in this entire process,” Africk said during a court hearing in March that underscored the lack of progress at OPP.
The acclaim Tidwell received during his year in New Orleans stood as a striking juxtaposition to the unrelenting criticism his boss, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, has weathered over his stewardship of Orleans Parish Prison — a jail that, despite federal supervision, remains among the most dangerous correctional facilities in the country.
By most accounts, Tidwell never fully received the autonomy he requested to implement systemic changes beyond the requirements of the consent decree Gusman signed with the U.S. Justice Department.
It was amid this frustration and apparent interference from Gusman that Tidwell began looking for a new job and, in early September, applied to become corrections director in Escambia County, Florida. On his application for employment, he declined to give officials there permission to contact Gusman as a reference.
Tidwell accepted the better-paying position and submitted his resignation on Friday, telling the sheriff his departure would create the opportunity for Gusman to hire “someone more in tune with your management style and vision for the agency,” according to a confidential email Tidwell sent to the sheriff.
“There was no straw that broke the camel’s back,” Tidwell said Monday, describing incremental yet mounting conflicts with his boss. “I would not stay any place where I thought I could not be successful.”
Gusman carefully controls the flow of information from the Sheriff’s Office. But the consent decree proceedings in federal court have offered periodic glimpses of a power struggle at the very top of the organization.
Over the summer, Susan McCampbell, the corrections expert tasked with monitoring the jail’s progress, offered a remarkably candid critique of Gusman and forcefully called for Tidwell to be granted greater latitude in performing the duties of his job, which was required by the court-ordered plan for jail reform.
‘Absence of autonomy’
“In terms of moving toward compliance, there is an absence of autonomy for the professional corrections administrator to do the work required,” McCampbell said at the time. “People need to get out of the way of doing the job that needs to be done.”
Tidwell’s exasperation is perhaps best illustrated by an email he wrote the sheriff Monday, accusing Gusman of unilaterally changing the effective date of his resignation without even bothering to tell him.
Tidwell, in the email to Gusman, said he intended to resign effective Dec. 12, seeking to allow himself a few days “to resolve several outstanding issues with staff and vendors.” But when he contacted a Sheriff’s Office sergeant to arrange a series of closeout meetings, he was told his last day with the agency had actually been Dec. 5 — a change that could have been made by only one person in the agency.
Claiming there had been a misunderstanding, an attorney for Gusman phoned Tidwell on Monday afternoon seeking to schedule a meeting among him, Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin and the team of officials preparing to move the Sheriff’s Office into a new 1,438-bed jail early next year, according to Tidwell’s email to Gusman. Tidwell rebuffed the request, saying he saw no benefit in such a meeting and noting he had been locked out of his Parish Sheriff’s Office user account on Friday.
The email also said that Gusman, in a telephone call Friday, had asked Tidwell to “participate in some type (of) news conference in an attempt to lessen the impact of my departure with the press.”
“In conclusion, I attempted to close out my relationship with OPSO in a professional fashion,” Tidwell wrote to Gusman. ??That effort was short-circuited by your actions of Friday.”
Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman who was copied on Tidwell’s email, said Monday evening that Tidwell’s final day at the agency remains this coming Friday. He said he didn’t have information from any “official sources” that Tidwell’s resignation date had been moved up. “I’m surprised to hear you say that,” he said.
A critical juncture
Tidwell’s departure comes at a critical juncture, as the Sheriff’s Office is ostensibly within weeks of relocating more than 1,000 inmates from the dilapidated OPP into a new $145 million jail that will employ a penological philosophy known as direct supervision.
His resignation was widely perceived as a blow to the Sheriff’s Office, which has struggled at every turn to satisfy the increasingly expensive demands of the consent decree.
Court-appointed experts have reported limited progress at the lockup and continued threats of inmate violence attributable in large part to staffing shortages. Tidwell told a City Council budget hearing last month that a lack of manpower even threatened to delay the opening of the jail indefinitely.
“This is a real setback,” said Norris Henderson, executive director of the Voice of the Ex-Offender and a member of the committee that in 2013 chose Tidwell as a finalist for the chief corrections deputy position.
“(Tidwell) never got the opportunity to do the job,” Henderson added. “I think his biggest weakness was he didn’t bring the cavalry with him.”
Another member of the selection committee, Rafael Goyeneche, said Tidwell served here long enough — just over a year — to leave a lasting imprint.
“He’s laid the foundation and a blueprint in taking the Sheriff’s Office from where it was a year ago to where it needs to be in order to be in compliance with the consent decree,” said Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog organization. “His plan is basically still there, and they need to continue to construct the plan according to the way that he designed it.”
Goyeneche suggested Tidwell’s decision had been influenced by family strains, noting that Tidwell rented an apartment in New Orleans while his wife remained in the Orlando area, where Tidwell previously worked. “There are going to be personal things that you and I are probably never going to know,” Goyeneche said.
Tidwell, in a brief telephone interview, disputed that his abrupt departure had anything to do with family. “That’s just not the case,” he said, noting he will still be a lengthy drive from his wife even after he moves to Pensacola.
An even bigger challenge
Tidwell, who has worked in corrections since the 1970s, including stints in Orlando, Memphis, St. Louis, Louisville and Baltimore, is returning to Florida to become the new corrections director in Escambia County, a jurisdiction that itself faces daunting challenges, including building a new jail, in the wake of a fatal natural gas explosion in April that destroyed its central booking and detention facility. He said his next venture, which includes a broad array of duties, would be even more of an uphill climb than the task he encountered in New Orleans.
“Escambia County has experienced some problems over the years,” Tidwell said. “Theirs is a community that is serious about correcting those issues, and they’ve demonstrated that over the last two or three years. I think that’s a good fertile ground to plant some seeds that will result in a system that works well for the community.”
Gusman has said the Sheriff’s Office will immediately begin looking for Tidwell’s replacement — a process in which McCampbell could play a significant role.
“I think the next person that we hire, we need to make sure it’s a person who’s going to be here longer-term,” said Greg Rusovich, a former chairman of the Business Council of New Orleans, who also served on the committee that selected Tidwell as a finalist.
The second finalist at that time was Cathy Fontenot, an assistant warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, who did not return a call seeking comment Monday.
“Just from a business perspective, you don’t want a situation where someone’s coming in for six months or nine months and then leaving,” Rusovich said. “I think that longevity is really important in the next selection.”
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