While that would normally be an unwise strategy, it makes a lot of sense in this case. Gusman, according to expert court testimony, runs the “worst large jail in the United States.” So, if he were the hands-on type, he’d be a fool to admit it.
He doesn’t look too clever anyway. Do a bunch of reports reveal assaults and homicides are commonplace? Gusman never bothered to read them. Do inmates videotape one another shooting up, drinking beer, toting guns and even walking out to take a stroll around the French Quarter? When federal investigators find the tape in a sheriff’s office safe, where it has lain forgotten for four years, Gusman has only a hazy recollection of watching it on a screen so tiny that he could hardly make out what was going on. No explanation for this odd investigating technique was ever offered.
To judge from the continuing flap over Deputy Bryan Collins, Gusman is not getting any more inquisitive about the workings of his own slammer, which penologist Jeffrey Schwartz called the most “dreadful” in his experience when he testified in April at a hearing on the federal consent decree under which Orleans Parish Prison will henceforth operate. Schwartz reported “runaway inmate-on-inmate violence.”
That was borne out a couple of months later when Edward Dean threw hot grits on his sleeping cellmate Brian Ellis’s face, then stabbed him 20 times. Collins went public with pictures he had taken on his cell phone camera of the blood-soaked cell, which rather gave the lie to Gusman’s announcement that Ellis had suffered “superficial” wounds but had been taken to hospital “out of an abundance of caution.” Dean has since pleaded guilty to attempted murder.
The rules forbid cell phones on cell tiers, but guards routinely carry them anyway. This was one occasion when justice was indisputably served by a minor infraction, and Collins, by any rational measure, was the hero of the hour.
Except, of course, to Gusman, who has been so keen to punish Collins for his temerity that he has made him a martyr to boot. Evidently high-handed public officials will never learn they sink even further in the public esteem by retaliating against whistleblowers.
Soon after the bloody pictures appeared in the public prints, Collins was told not to report for work pending a decision on condign punishment. He has been in limbo ever since with, you might think, Gusman’s beady eye upon him. Not if we choose to believe Gusman. He is as unaware as ever, saying, “I don’t know the status of the investigation. I don’t know whether it’s a criminal investigation or an administrative proceeding but that’s all being handled by our internal affairs and investigative agency and HR.”
But District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office says no report has been received from Gusman, who must by now have figured out that pursuing criminal charges over a contraband phone would just make him look even more petty and vindictive. He should have dropped the matter months ago, so that he wouldn’t have to launch his re-election campaign under a cloud.
Well, not so much of a cloud anyway. The question of whether the jail would be less lousy if he kept better tabs on it would remain.
He is being challenged by Charlie Foti, who was sheriff for almost 30 years before being elected attorney general in 2003. Ousted from that job in 2007, Foti is now 75 and need defer to no one in experience of running a lousy jail.
The third candidate is Ira Thomas, president of the Orleans Parish School Board and police chief at SUNO. It is not clear how much he knows about what goes on at Parish Prison. Perhaps Gusman’s negatives wouldn’t be so high in the polls if the same could be said about him.
James Gill can be reached at email@example.com.