Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman continues to live in an alternate reality when it comes to facing facts about his failure to properly run the city's jail. After being in denial for months, if not years, Gusman last week maintained that he was still in control of the troubled facility, even though a federal judge stated in open court that Gusman is "relinquishing operational control and final authority for jail operations." That statement came a month after one expert witness testified in the same courtroom that Gusman and his staff "have no clue" how to run a jail that is safe, secure and constitutional — the minimum standards under federal law.
Gusman, the U.S. Department of Justice, a group of inmate plaintiffs and the City of New Orleans have been locked in contentious litigation for years trying to get the sheriff to comply with the terms of a 2013 consent decree designed to bring the city's jails up to snuff. Independent monitors consistently have told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk that Gusman and his staff were not meeting benchmarks. In April, all three of Gusman's courtroom adversaries asked Africk to appoint an independent "receiver" to take over the facility. Testimony in that matter was nearing conclusion when Gusman came to terms with the feds, the plaintiffs and the city.
The terms of the settlement are clear: An independent "compliance director" (read: receiver by another name) will have "full and final authority" over all aspects of the jail — from budgeting to hiring and firing, from sanitation to safety. The feds, the plaintiffs and the city will screen applicants for the director's job and submit up to three nominees to Gusman, who must choose one — but the judge will have the final say. Equally important, the director will report solely to Africk, not to Gusman. The judge, not Gusman, will set the director's salary. At the end of the day, Gusman remains in charge of the "civil" side of the sheriff's office — process serving and auctioning properties in foreclosure. All aspects of the "criminal" side of the office will be run by the compliance director.
Despite those stark terms, Gusman told reporters after the settlement was announced that he remains in charge of the jail because he will "appoint" the compliance director. That simply is not true. The judge has the final say, not Gusman. The sheriff's lame attempt to save face politically last week speaks volumes not only about his break from reality but also about his misplaced focus — on himself rather than on the jail, its inhabitants and the community at large.
Here is a dose of reality: We all face increased levels of violence when inmates are released back into society after spending time in Gusman's custody. The settlement marks the beginning of a new era in New Orleans jails — one free of Gusman's delusions, denials and incompetence. Unlike a judgment, this settlement cannot be appealed. We wish the compliance director Godspeed, and we hope Gusman stays out of the way.