Half of New Orleans’ jail could be shut down for months while deputies undergo training _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Sheriff Marlin Gusman speaks 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.

As much as half of the city’s new $150 million jail will be shuttered for weeks or months as authorities transfer some 600 New Orleans inmates to jails outside of the parish, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman said Wednesday.

The sheriff offered new details about the transfers, which were first disclosed Tuesday, but said he doesn’t know how long the inmates will be housed in East Carroll Parish and other jurisdictions.

An outside corrections expert told a federal judge last month that parts of the jail should be closed due to a staffing crisis at the facility.

The sheriff said the arrangement likely will last for months, but he promised that officials will “try to make it as short as we can.”

“This is not something we’re snapping our fingers and pulling off,” Gusman told reporters. “It’s all about making sure that we have the proper levels” of staffing for the number of inmates in the jail.

Closing down as many as two floors of the four-story Orleans Justice Center will free up guards the Sheriff’s Office needs to retrain in order to comply with court-ordered reforms designed to improve conditions at the lockup.

Pointing to staffing shortages — and the demands of a federal consent decree he signed with the U.S. Justice Department — Gusman this week revealed a plan to temporarily house nearly two-thirds of the city’s inmate population in jails outside New Orleans.

The bulk of those detainees are being sent hours away to East Carroll Parish, in northeastern Louisiana, but the sheriff said Wednesday that some will be housed in other parishes, which he declined to identify. “We’re still working on it,” he said.

Gusman could not provide a specific number of deputies his agency needs in order to safely staff the jail, but he noted that “we have some in the process of being hired.”

Part of the challenge, he said, is that deputies being trained have to be removed from their posts inside the jail for that period of time. “When I have people in the academy, that means they’re not here” supervising inmates, he said.

The sheriff insisted the jail is “not having any problem with violence,” a claim that contradicts the findings of the court-appointed experts monitoring conditions at the jail. Those experts say inmates attack each other on a regular basis and, on many occasions, have assaulted deputies.

One inmate, Lenton Vanburen, was rebooked Wednesday on allegations he squirted an “unknown red liquid” from a shampoo bottle into the face of a deputy, according to court records.

The sheriff said he found it “insulting” that the U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge last week to appoint an outside official, known as a receiver, to take over running the jail.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk will hear arguments later this month on the government’s request, which was joined by attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center.

“Any reasonable person would say that a federal takeover is ridiculous,” Gusman said. “I’m frustrated because I know that we’re doing a great job. I know that, with all of this hard work that we’ve done ... for somebody to come now and say they want to take it over, that’s insulting.”

The inmate transfers to distant sites have raised concerns about delays in court proceedings, and Gusman acknowledged the mass displacement “has an effect on all of the criminal justice system.” But he said the Sheriff’s Office will work with judges to ensure inmates are in New Orleans when needed.

“We’re not planning on any of those court hearings being delayed,” he said.

But the move also will have an impact on the families of the accused, like Betty Jackson, whose son, Bradley, told her Wednesday that he is among the inmates being relocated.

Betty Jackson said she doesn’t know in which parish her son will be housed.

“Nobody’s telling nobody nothing,” she said outside the jail. “It’s going to be a hardship because a lot of us don’t have transportation to see our kids.”

Paul Murphy of WWL-TV contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.