Bowing to the demands of city leaders, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman announced Friday that he has pulled the plug on a state inmate re-entry program based in New Orleans that sought to reduce the risk that prisoners with local ties would commit new crimes after they’re released.
The decision means that all 120 state prisoners participating in the program will be returned to the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections within 10 days and transferred to other facilities. The sheriff, citing a lack of staffing at the city’s new $150 million jail, also said he will send an additional 75 state prisoners back to the corrections department even though they have pending criminal cases in New Orleans.
“These two moves will allow us, at least for now, to redeploy deputies in a way that will improve our working conditions and improve public safety for our employees as well as for the inmates,” Gusman said.
At the same time, however, Gusman said he has not committed to returning to New Orleans any of the hundreds of pretrial detainees he has sent to jails in northeastern Louisiana. He said the 1,438-bed jail on Perdido Street remains too small to accommodate the city’s inmate population, even without state prisoners.
“We don’t have room, so there’s no commitment right now to bring anybody back,” Gusman said. “Until we get sufficient facilities, until we get adequate staff, they’re going to have to stay” in East Carroll and Franklin parishes.
The sheriff blamed his manpower struggles on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which he accused of thwarting recruitment efforts by refusing to approve pay raises for his deputies. Funding for jail operations falls to the city under state law.
“The city of New Orleans refuses to consider public safety as a top priority and has neglected its responsibility and duty under the law to fully fund the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office,” Gusman said.
Hayne Rainey, a Landrieu spokesman, denied that claim, saying public safety is the city’s “top priority.” He called for local pretrial detainees to remain in New Orleans.
“From day one, we have stated that this is about the management of the jail, not funding,” Rainey said. “As we have reiterated, we remain committed to reaching a master settlement with the sheriff so that we can resolve all of the issues related to the jail once and for all.”
The decision to end the re-entry program marked an about-face for Gusman, who had refused repeated requests by the Landrieu administration to relocate the state prisoners and free up more beds in the jail for New Orleans inmates. Landrieu even appealed to the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, pointing to the ballooning cost of jail operations and the long list of reforms the city must pay for under a federal consent decree that Gusman signed with the U.S. Justice Department.
The Southeast Regional Reentry Program, which began in 2010, had been a pet project for a sheriff facing a slew of litigation over living conditions at the jail, including the landmark case that brought the city’s lockup under federal supervision. While the program won high praise from state corrections officials and had considerable community support, inmate advocates also called for it to be scrapped, accusing Gusman of misplacing his priorities in the face of a worsening staffing crisis at the jail.
They pointed to the sheriff’s controversial decision to keep several hundred state prisoners in New Orleans while shuttling about the same number of pretrial inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana.
“Put very simply, there is no justification for housing any discretionary prisoners whatsoever if Sheriff Gusman is incapable of safely housing pretrial detainees that belong in Orleans Parish,” Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, argued in a court filing last week.
The Sheriff’s Office, she added, should direct every available “staff member, brain cell and atom of energy” toward achieving the sweeping reforms outlined in the consent decree, many of which remain unfulfilled.
The sheriff’s announcement, which seemed to catch even state corrections officials off guard, came on the eve of a federal court hearing scheduled for Monday in which Landrieu’s attorneys were expected to argue that Gusman was overstepping his bounds by continuing the re-entry program.
There were mounting indications that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk would rule against Gusman. The relocation of inmates awaiting trial to facilities several hours away has frustrated private defense attorneys and the undermanned Orleans Public Defenders, which has urged Africk to order the return of state prisoners to the corrections department.
Susan McCampbell, the outside expert appointed to oversee the jail reforms, also joined the chorus recently after receiving reports of several violent incidents in the new jail. “To me,” McCampbell wrote in a recent letter to the sheriff, “it does not make any rational sense to send more pretrial inmates out of parish while state inmates in the re-entry program remain.”
The re-entry program, which was directed by Leo Hayden, a former NFL running back who has extensive experience working with prisoners, had been funded by the state at a cost of $550,000 a year, plus per diem payments Gusman received from the state to house and feed the participants.
The sheriff estimated that elimination of the program will cost his office about $2.5 million a year. The city has budgeted $61 million for the Sheriff’s Office this year.
The Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which in recent years has greatly increased the number of re-entry programs around the state, considered the New Orleans operation a success, pointing to reductions in recidivism rates among its graduates. The program was not intended to be “treatment” for prisoners nearing the end of their sentences but “a life-skills and planning program,” said Rhett Covington, assistant secretary of the department.
One of the goals of the program, Hayden said, was for prisoners to leave custody “thinking and feeling and understanding the behavior that caused (them) to wind up here to begin with.”
“We don’t expect miracles” from the re-entry program, Covington said in a phone interview. “What we expect is for (participants) to have better outcomes in the first year or two because they got this jump start, versus us dropping them off at the bus station in New Orleans at midnight.”
Still, some critics questioned the value of the program, pointing to a 2014 study by the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute that found significant room for improvement. The study graded the program as “ineffective” overall, noting a “dissonance among the administrative team,” among other shortcomings.
Gusman also had been accused by city officials of keeping hundreds of state prisoners in New Orleans in an attempt to justify adding another new jail building — what the sheriff has long referred to as a Phase III facility.
“Re-entry has to include actual coming out — not a curriculum that could be taken in Arkansas that only serves to expand the prison system and its budget,” said Norris Henderson, a former convict who is a core member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “Second, and more importantly, we have a sheriff who is hiding the fact that it doesn’t work, who champions this failed program solely because it bolsters the jail population by about 300 people.”
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