James Gill: Who gets the keys? Standoff looming between Gusman, city over fate of New Orleans jail _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman speaks at a news conference called Monday to discuss Òorganizational changesÓ within the Sheriff's office.

When the great hoosegow hearing resumes Monday, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will be ready to argue that he should not have the keys taken away from him.

But victory would not be without a pyrrhic element. If federal judge Lance Africk decides to stick with the status quo, Gusman will be left to run a joint that, by his own reckoning, he will never be able to whip into shape. He claims it will remain seriously understaffed without the deputy raises Mayor Mitch Landrieu refuses to spring for. Africk has refrained from intervening.

Africk could change his mind, leave Gusman in charge and order Landrieu to cough up, but that would raise an awkward question. What took you so long? It has been three years since Gusman signed a consent decree to settle a lawsuit filed by inmates alleging they were confined in conditions so dire and hazardous as to be unconstitutional. He hasn’t lived up to it while laying the blame squarely on Landrieu’s tight-fistedness.

The plaintiff inmates, joined by the Department of Justice in Washington, see Gusman as incompetent and don’t want him left in charge under any circumstances. They have asked Africk to hold him in contempt for reneging on the consent decree and appoint a receiver to take over the jail.

That might raise awkward questions too, however. Africk’s monitors do not dispute that the jail needs more manpower to keep vulnerable inmates from harm and thugs from one another’s throats. It is therefore quite likely that one of a receiver’s first moves would be to ask Africk to order up some more money from the city coffers.

Were Africk to agree, wouldn’t that signify that Gusman was right all along? For a white judge to supplant a black elected official always will be a delicate business, but if it looks like a put-up job, there will be rumblings on the street.

The only outcome that would make all parties happy, with the possible exception of Gusman, would be for a receiver to come in and promptly produce a paragon of slammers on the current budget. The building, being only eight months old, should be no impediment; indeed, Gusman used to tout it as the answer to all his woes. Were a receiver to achieve such a transformation, Gusman’s detractors would be spectacularly vindicated. But that would be little less than a miracle.

More likely, it will turn out that nobody can bring the joint up to acceptable standards without more money. Then, removing Gusman as boss of the jail, far and away the primary responsibility of his office, will seem to have been a gratuitous negation of the voters’ will.

He and his supporters already are making that argument. Congressman Cedric Richmond did so last week and suggested in a letter that the Justice Department “amicably resolve your concerns before pursuing a costly and inefficient receivership process.”

The contrary view is that nothing could be more inefficient than the current administration. One of Africk’s monitors said at the receivership hearing last week that Gusman had “no clue” how to run a jail.

Gusman has long been nicknamed “Cool Hand Luke” on account of his phlegmatic public persona, which can make him seen disengaged even while prisoners are committing suicide and daily violent assaults.

But possibly with an eye on the court of public opinion, he is nowadays showing some passion. The “no clue” gibe made him so mad he told reporters it was “not even worthy of a response.” Then he responded by declaring himself “a well-educated, well-experienced person.”

True. Gusman is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvanian, holds a law degree from Loyola and, after a stint at City Hall, has been sheriff since 2004. He certainly ought to know how to run a jail, but it ain’t necessarily so.

Certainly, he has yet to address many of the consent decree’s requirements while crying poverty throughout. Meanwhile, Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, is among those who believe the jail can never run smoothly without many more and better paid guards.

Maybe Gusman and a receiver could share responsibility for the jail until it is fixed. When all options have drawbacks, compromise is generally the answer.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.