Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman typically tries hard to avoid the federal courthouse, dispatching his chief deputies and outside attorneys to update a judge on the latest crises afflicting the city’s jail.
On Tuesday, however, the sheriff has been summoned to make a rare appearance at 500 Poydras St., where U.S. District Judge Lance Africk expects Gusman to testify about the staffing shortage at the Sheriff’s Office that has resulted in hundreds of New Orleans inmates being moved to jails in northeastern Louisiana to await trial.
“The sheriff has at least four things to answer tomorrow,” Africk told Gusman’s representatives at a hearing Monday, referring to an overdue deputy recruitment plan and the alarming attrition rate at the Sheriff’s Office, among other topics.
Africk seemed to go out of his way to emphasize Gusman’s personal role in carrying out the sweeping jail reforms spelled out in a consent decree between the Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Justice Department — the result of a class-action lawsuit filed nearly four years ago over the notorious conditions at Orleans Parish Prison.
At one point, the judge asked Gusman’s chief corrections deputy, Carmen Desadier, whether her testimony reflected the sheriff’s own staffing strategy at the jail.
Gusman has long said that closing OPP — and opening a new $150 million jail last year — would remedy the jailhouse violence and bring the Sheriff’s Office into compliance with Africk’s orders. But a series of recent attacks at the 1,438-bed lockup has highlighted a dangerous lack of deputies, a problem Gusman has blamed on city officials’ refusal to approve pay raises for the guards.
As the sheriff spars with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration over funding, the team of experts tasked with monitoring the jail reforms has demanded an accounting of the manpower at the Sheriff’s Office and how Gusman has deployed it.
The Sheriff’s Office has been ordered to produce a breakdown of its employees and their assignments so the monitors can analyze the deployment plan and recommend possible improvements.
“The part that’s confusing for us is not having some true list of everyone who works for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (as we’re) trying to figure out if you’re understaffed in the jail,” said Margo Frasier, a former sheriff in Austin, Texas, who is monitoring correctional practices at the local jail.
It’s not uncommon, Frasier added, for the monitors to encounter a deputy “wearing a sergeant’s insignia who is essentially performing a clerical function.”
“I think it’s really time to find out exactly what everybody’s doing,” Africk said.
Susan McCampbell, the leader of the monitoring team, is expected to offer a fuller account Tuesday on the deteriorating conditions at the new jail. She offered a small preview of her report on Monday, informing Africk that the jail’s new classification system — its mechanism for separating and housing inmates according to various risk factors, including the severity of their charges — “has been defeated” by poorly planned movements of inmates within the jail and between facilities.
In the months after he approved the 2013 consent decree, Africk acknowledged that overhauling conditions at the jail would take time. He often told the parties litigating the case that they would have to “take the stairs, rather than the elevator” to effect meaningful change.
More recently, he has expressed growing impatience, suggesting the proceedings have been “overlawyered” and stymied by political squabbles like the standoff between Landrieu and Gusman over funding.
Monday’s hearing began on a particularly contentious note, as Africk fined lawyers for the Sheriff’s Office and the Landrieu administration $1,000 on each side for missing a deadline to submit in writing which state prisoners are eligible to be returned to the Department of Corrections in light of the worsening staffing crisis.
“That’s a real problem,” Africk said, adding it had been “very clear to everyone what was required” to be outlined in the document. The judge ordered the lawyers to pay the sanctions out of their own pockets, stressing that no taxpayer dollars should be used.
The judge’s temper flared again when he had to break up an argument between Gusman attorney James M. Williams and Harry Rosenberg, the former U.S. attorney who represents Landrieu in the case.
“You may be the king of Washington, but you’re not the king of the courtroom,” Africk told Williams, referring to the attorney’s royal role this year in the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians, who bring Mardi Gras to the nation’s capital each year. “I don’t want to hear any more. I’m not going to let the lawyers argue in front of me.”
Williams, who on Friday inadvertently filed into the court record an order form for Carnival accessories from Beads by the Dozen, took exception to the judge’s remarks, calling them “really inappropriate.”
“I never suggested to you or anyone else in this courtroom that I was king of anything,” Williams said. “It was a silly Mardi Gras ball in Washington, D.C.”
Africk allowed that his quip was an “ill attempt at humor” but reiterated his admonition.
“This is my courtroom,” he said. “You can argue to me.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.