If there's any seat that should be ripe for the picking in the Feb. 1 municipal election, it's that of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Last year, a 30-minute jailhouse video (made in 2009) went viral with its images of prisoners waving firearms, drinking beer, showing off pills, snorting white powder (from the cover of a Bible workbook) and roaming Bourbon Street. A federal consent decree, mandating extensive reforms at the jail, is about to kick in and could cost the cash-strapped city millions per year.
Moreover, an October survey by University of New Orleans pollster Ed Chervenak showed Gusman had a 56 percent disapproval rating among voters — including a majority of black voters.
But consensus has eluded Gusman's major opponents, while the incumbent's campaign has picked up steam.
Gusman's challengers are Charles Foti Jr., the former sheriff who held the job for nearly 30 years until he became Louisiana attorney general in 2004; and Ira Thomas, a 28-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and current president of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). A fourth candidate, Quentin Brown, is a local gardener who previously mounted homespun campaigns for mayor, city councilman and governor.
Everyone in town, including U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over litigation that led to the consent decree, agrees that Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is an unsafe place. All, that is, except Gusman, who told an audience at last week's Alliance for Good Government forum that OPP is "on the cusp" of being "a world-class prison facility."
"We are poised to make a big difference in the way we handle corrections in this community," Gusman told Gambit last week.
New construction, Gusman said, has begun to transform the prison: "Each housing tier has its own recreation yard," he said. "Each tier has its own conference room. Each has its own visitation area. High ceilings, bright lights."
As for the controversial video, Gusman said it was "not descriptive of what goes on every day. That was an anomaly. Do we have issues with contraband? Every prison, every school, has issues with contraband. When [Foti] was sheriff, we had all of that. Foti kept all of that under the rug."
Not surprisingly, Foti disagrees, saying Gusman has created "a complete mess. ... You always have contraband and some violence," he said. "The key word is 'excessive.' The key word is 'continual.' You have to keep working to improve conditions. ... The sheriff is not addressing any of the problems that exist at the prison. The state and feds pulled their prisoners out because of the unconstitutional conditions [in the prison]."
Thomas blames both men. "For 39 years, this office has been a source of debate and controversy. We now have a chance to get it right," he said. "In the past decade, it's gotten worse. We have to put qualified people in key positions that have the expertise and experience to go into that environment if we're going to fix it. It can't be done from the administrative office. This is an all-hands-on-deck thing. I've never seen a public agency that has failed so miserably in every aspect of its responsibilities."
All three agree that the jail's historic reliance on per diem funding — the jail receives a set amount each day for each prisoner who's locked up, a system put in place by a previous consent decree while Foti was sheriff — is outdated. All agree that a set yearly budget is preferable. But how big the jail should be remains in dispute. Despite months of hearings that led the city to decide in 2011 that the new prison should have 1,438 beds, the number has been adjusted (if not abandoned) as plans are made for a mental health wing and space for other challenging populations.
"The council passed an ordinance directing the sheriff to build a 1,438-bed facility. Those were his marching orders," Thomas said. "He should have had this conversation about jail size before the ordinance was passed."
When Foti left the sheriff's office, the jail population at times exceeded 6,000 inmates. Today Foti said the jail should house "somewhere between 2,000 and 2,200" people, but stressed the figure will fluctuate depending on the types of inmates who are there at any given time.
"This community, the direction that it's going, could do well with a jail population of under 2,000," Gusman said. "I would hope it would be less than that. Post-Katrina, we've seen a tremendous fluctuation. In 2009, intake was 63,000 people across our threshold. In 2013, 34,000 crossed our threshold. I think we're going in the right direction."
What's not in dispute is the fact that the sheriff largely cannot control the jail's population. By law, the sheriff must house everyone arrested by NOPD or ordered incarcerated by a judge.
How much will all this cost? None of the candidates fielded a specific amount.
"The city is going to have to look at funding, will have to increase taxes," Foti said. "No one has priced out what the new plan will cost." Foti added he'd like to get out from under the consent decree as quickly as possible by having the jail accredited by the American Correctional Association.
"It's hard to say how we're going to generate enough money," Thomas said, "but having a safe, secure, humane and constitutional jail is what the sheriff is supposed to be doing." Thomas called for a complete financial audit of the prison and called the cost of the consent decree — which Gusman says will run about $7 million or $8 million per year — "negligible."
Gusman said, "If we work together on it [with city officials], we can reduce the cost." He added that he has cut costs while giving jail employees a raise, and he said his relationship with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, once nearly nonexistent, has improved greatly in recent months. Landrieu agrees the two men are on better terms now.
Both Thomas and Foti said that one of Gusman's biggest problems has been "classification" — sorting inmates upon intake so that nonviolent offenders aren't put into cells with violent criminals, and that special-needs populations get the help they need.
Thomas said when the NOPD handled intakes at the jail, "we had a fast-track processing center. We classified them. Traffic arrestees were not placed in the same holding tank with state felons. People didn't spend any more time in a cell than was necessary. It wasn't about the per diem, it was about efficiency."
"When you don't classify, or classify improperly, that leads to violence," Foti said. The [U.S. Department of Justice] and the court both said there was excessive inmate-on-inmate violence, rapes, sexual violence, inadequate psychiatric care. The whole system is broken."
Gusman said he does classify inmates. "He [Foti] was under a consent decree for classification, and for not having a medical director," Gusman said. "We have a classification system and we've steadily improved it. ... We don't have the best. But at a very fundamental level we were classifying people."
As the campaign enters its final two weeks, the sheriff's race has shaped up as one of the most hotly contested on the ballot. Gusman has far more cash on hand than his opponents, according to reports filed three weeks ago with the Louisiana Ethics Administration. Gusman had $458,886 in his kitty; Foti had just over $150,000; and Thomas had $58,000.