Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman delivered a vigorous defense Monday of his record at the helm of the city’s jail, vowing to resist an attempt by the U.S. Justice Department to hand the keys of the lockup to a third-party administrator.
He also announced a reorganization within the highest ranks of the Sheriff’s Office, including the hiring of a chief financial officer and a chief of investigations. “Federal takeover is not the answer,” Gusman said at an afternoon news conference. “When the feds take over things, most of the time it doesn’t end right.”
Gusman fired back a week after the Justice Department and attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center urged a federal judge to place the jail in receivership — an exceedingly unusual request that would strip the sheriff of his core responsibilities.
The sheriff insisted his agency has made remarkable progress toward implementing court-ordered reforms, despite operating under “extreme conditions” in the decade following Hurricane Katrina.
“We cannot ignore the results we have achieved in these first two years of the consent decree,” Gusman said, referring to the agreement he signed to improve conditions and resolve a class-action lawsuit filed by inmates under his care.
“We think it is unreasonable for the plaintiffs and the Department of Justice to expect complete perfection in only two years when we are overhauling a system that was broken for 30 years before I became sheriff. Sheriffs in similar consent decrees, in other parts of America, have been given many more years to comply with their consent decrees,” he said.
Gusman’s remarks, delivered at the newly opened Orleans Justice Center, were his most extensive on the matter since the government and lawyers representing inmates asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to appoint an outside receiver to try to rein in the violence occurring among inmates at the jail.
The Justice Department, in a lengthy legal filing last week, questioned Gusman’s leadership and argued that chronic staffing shortages and widespread jail violence warrant “urgent and extraordinary action” from the courts “to address the immediate risk of harm and death to the men, women and youth in the jail.”
“The prisoners are taking control of the jail,” the government and inmates’ lawyers wrote. “It is only a matter of time before more prisoners, or staff members, suffer serious injury or death.”
Africk, who is overseeing conditions at the jail, is expected to hear oral arguments later this month on the idea of appointing a receiver.
The judge has not indicated whether he is inclined to remove Gusman from the picture, but he has appeared increasingly impatient in recent months at the slow pace of change, particularly after a team of corrections experts reported recently that the Sheriff’s Office had taken several steps backwards.
Gusman on Monday declined even to entertain what federal receivership would look like, saying “we’re not even going to discuss” the particulars. He expressed confidence that the government’s bid will be rejected — like a similar effort three years ago by Mayor Mitch Landrieu — and told reporters that “none of the (legal) standards can be met that would allow a federal takeover” of the jail.
“Other people have presented themselves to the voters and said they could do a better job,” Gusman said, noting he has been elected four times. “I’m here. I am doing the best job that can be done.”
Even as the sheriff touted his progress, he acknowledged that “there’s certainly more work to be done” and called upon city leaders to approve pay raises for deputies and adequately fund the Sheriff’s Office.
As part of his efforts to stave off receivership, Gusman has created two new positions — chief financial officer and chief of investigations — who will report directly to him.
The sheriff named Sean Bruno as his interim chief financial officer and said the position will be filled permanently by a search committee to include representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, Landrieu’s administration, the Business Council of New Orleans and the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.
Gusman said he created the job “to put down any of these questions about the financial and business practices (at the Sheriff’s Office) and make it accountable under one chain.”
The sheriff appointed Michael Laughlin as his chief of investigations, responsible for overseeing criminal inquiries into jailhouse fights and contraband smuggling. Violence in the new jail — much of which has been attributed to insufficient staffing — has been among the chief concerns of the court-appointed experts monitoring conditions.
Carmen DeSadier, the sheriff’s chief corrections deputy, attended Monday’s news conference and discussed her decision to return to the Sheriff’s Office a few weeks after she resigned amid a power struggle with Gerald “Jerry” Ursin, Gusman’s chief deputy at the time. Despite leaving the agency, she said she has “never wavered in my commitment to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, or to the people of New Orleans.”
“There were significant challenges keeping me from carrying out the duties to move the department in the direction that the sheriff and I both wanted,” said DeSadier, who oversees the day-to-day operations at the jail. “The sheriff promised me there would be changes, and today you are seeing those changes. I am confident that I now have what I need to do my job.”
As he has on many occasions before, the sheriff led local media on a tour of the new jail following his news conference, pointing out new technologies he said will help the Sheriff’s Office move forward.
The tour began at the now-shuttered House of Detention, across Perdido Street, a dilapidated building that the sheriff contrasted with the brand-new $150 million facility he opened in September.
“While people stand outside the jail calling for change, they never ask to come inside,” Gusman said, adding that many of his “most vocal critics” have never visited the new jail.
“This is telling about whether they are true agents for change or simply agitators with a hidden agenda. If you want to see what’s happening at the Orleans Justice Center, I welcome you to do so,” he said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.