James Gill: Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman puts creative spin on city jail disaster

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Sheriff Marlin Gusman looks next to the entrance where the first Orleans Parish Prison buses transported prisoners to the new $150 million parish prison built in part with FEMA money in New Orleans, La. Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

It is not in the nature of politicians to be humble, but, even by their standards, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is remarkably cocky.

His self-esteem remains intact although he just agreed to relinquish control of the jail that has been his prime responsibility since he was first elected 12 years ago.

Indeed, at a news conference after he signed the deal to step aside, Gusman gave such a glowing description of life at the new jailhouse he opened last fall that an out-of-towner would have to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Federal Judge Lance Africk, and the monitors he appointed to report on the implementation of the consent decree Gusman signed in 2012, view the slammer in a less favorable light. So do the plaintiffs in the lawsuit settled by the consent decree — inmates, supported by the U.S. Justice Department, who alleged they had been subjected to unconstitutional conditions.

Gusman’s self-confidence, in circumstances that would cause more sensitive beings to slink away in embarrassment, may reflect a sense of relief. He had seemed bound for a humiliation that even he could not affect to brush aside.

Those plaintiffs, after Gusman had failed spectacularly to abide by the consent decree, wanted Africk to hold him in contempt and appoint a receiver to run the jail. Halfway through a hearing on their motion, however, the parties reached, and Africk approved, a resolution evidently intended to spare Gusman’s blushes somewhat.

The dread word “receiver” does not appear in the deal. Instead, an “Independent Jail Compliance Director” will assume “final authority” over the entire operation. Not that it makes much difference; Gusman is sidelined willy-nilly.

Gusman, however, was able to cast this as little short of a victory, since, subject to Africk’s approval, he will get to appoint the compliance director, who will be required to seek his “advice and/or approval” for major decisions. “This is not unlike delegating authority that I do with a lot of people,” Gusman said.

Oh, yes it is. A court-ordered takeover bears no comparison to the delegations of authority that are a normal part of any administration. And since the “final authority” will rest with the compliance director, Gusman’s “advice and/or approval” is pretty much window dressing. In any case, it won’t be required if “unreasonable delay” would result.

Within 90 days of taking over, the compliance director will be required to provide Africk with an “initial remedial action plan.” Gusman’s approval of that plan “shall not be unreasonably withheld.”

As for the appointment of a compliance director, Gusman will by no means have a free hand, being forced to choose from a maximum of three candidates nominated by his most prominent detractors — the plaintiffs who won the consent decree and the city of New Orleans, which must foot the bill for the jail.

Gusman has long complained that the city won’t give him enough money to bring the jail up to scratch, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu has consistently maintained that the real problem is a lack of competence. The monitors appointed by Africk to oversee compliance with the consent decree have frequently suggested that Gusman’s administration doesn’t have much of a clue about how to run a jail.

When the compliance director submits a budget, the city will have to find new pretexts for denying any request for an increase. The city, having helped to choose the compliance director, can hardly question his or her competence. If the city does cough up more money, Gusman doubtless will feel vindicated.

Once the compliance director has turned the joint around in line with the requirements of the consent decree — but no sooner than nine months after his or her appointment — Gusman can ask Africk to put him back in charge of the jail.

If that happens as Gusman prepares for the 2018 election, imagine the news conference he will hold. If he seems cocky now, he will be strutting then for sure.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.