"There comes a time," Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles C. Foti Jr. liked to say when asked why he was running for state Attorney General recently, "when you have to step outside your comfort zone."
It sounded both hip and hopeful coming from the 65-year-old sheriff, who will soon step down as warden of the largest prison population in the South. Foti is also the only jailer in the nation to create and operate an aquaculture farm atop a detention facility, a Halloween Haunted House as a substation in a city park, and a sailboat marina from which his office derives rental income.
Within the sheriff's "comfort zone" is a complex network of jails and prisons in the center of New Orleans. There are 7,000 inmates and arrested people, 1,100 workers who serve at the sheriff's pleasure, and an annual budget of $70 million that last year included a $29.3 million payroll.
After nearly three decades as the city's elected jailer, however, Foti on Jan. 12 will take office as Louisiana's Attorney General, having defeated state elections commissioner Suzanne Terrell in the Oct. 4 primary election. As chief legal officer for the state, Foti will assume another relatively low-key but influential office with a mission he can expand and redefine, unencumbered by term limits.
Foti has said he will appoint an interim chief deputy once he's sworn in as attorney general. A special election must be held for a successor to finish Foti's eighth term as sheriff, which expires in April 2006. And the next available election dates are the March 9 Democratic presidential primary and the Sept. 18 congressional primaries.
Either election for sheriff must be called by the New Orleans City Council, according to an attorney for the elections division of Secretary of State Fox McKeithen's office. To get the March 9 election date, Foti must submit his prospective resignation to McKeithen's office by Dec. 22. If Foti waits until after his inauguration as Attorney General to submit his resignation from the sheriff's office, the election for his old job will be scheduled no earlier than Sept. 18.
By late last week, the list of candidates included Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau, a longtime political ally of the attorney general-elect, and former Criminal Court Judge Morris Reed, who Foti easily defeated in the sheriff's 2002 re-election campaign.
Until a special election is called, Foti's prospective departure as sheriff may be more dramatic than his statewide primary victory as attorney general. The imminent transition of power is sparking discussions about the future of the sheriff's office. And by all accounts, Foti leaves big shoes to fill.
Ed Renwick, a Loyola University pollster and political scientist, predicts politicos and the public will take different views of the office Foti is leaving behind. "The politicians will look at it for its ($120,721 annual) salary and a large number of patronage jobs," Renwick says. "It will be very desirable for a politician or some political organization. As far as the public is concerned, they would want an office run better, more efficiently and cheaper, while looking out for the rights of the people who are arrested."
Asked what sort of credentials voters should seek in a candidate who must run a prison larger than maximum-security penitentiary at Angola, Renwick replies: "For elective offices, we don't really hire people that are experts at running prisons. It's a political office."
And it has grown exponentially since Foti took office April 1, 1974, as a warden charged with reforming a notorious, crumbling prison with no more than 800 inmates at "head count." "He was a good sheriff," Renwick says. "He was very creative and he took a mundane position and made it into a powerhouse."
Susan Howell, a professor of political science and a pollster at the University of New Orleans, says Foti's departure clears the way for the election of the city's first black jailer. "Obviously, we are going to have an African-American sheriff," says Howell. "[Foti] is one of the last standing white officials elected parishwide."
In the minds of most voters, she continues, Foti was an excellent sheriff. "He reached out into the community ... and he always surrounded himself with good people, his chief administrative officer Mike Geerken being a prime example."
The biggest issue in the coming race to succeed Foti will be the criminal justice/law enforcement credentials of the candidates, Howell says. "Paul Valteau has that, sort of, as civil sheriff," she says. "I would think Valteau would be the favored candidate."
Overall, Howell says, "This is the kind of office where you don't want somebody who is going to be 'soft.'"
Silas Lee, a pollster and professor of sociology at Xavier University, offers a different perspective. "People are concerned about public safety, but there is a perception that the place is just a warehouse for prisoners with no social recourse," Lee says. "That is going to be an issue for all of the candidates" -- despite Foti's well-publicized "boot camp" for first-time offenders, a GED program and other initiatives.
Other campaign issues may include increased accountability to the City Council for city funding of the prison, and "transparency" of the prison's vast bureaucracy and operations. There may be campaign pledges to reduce the average time for processing the release of inmates, which currently can take more than 12 hours, and attending to prisoners with special needs.
"I'm quite sure that all of the candidates will tout the fact that they are not a carbon copy of Charlie Foti," Lee says. "They will want to institutionalize their own agenda." And barring some major scandal, whoever succeeds Foti as sheriff can "almost keep the office for life," the pollster says.
Others pondering the future of the office take differing views on what the new sheriff's priorities should be. "Sheriff Foti has done a great job of growing the prison, but it is my opinion that it is not a growth industry that we need," says William Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University and a veteran civil rights lawyer. "All of the sheriffs have a lot more influence over how long people stay in jail than the public thinks. ... I don't think building more jail cells should be an agenda item for the new sheriff."
Foti's departure, Quigley says, offers the public an opportunity to re-examine a vast operation that processes more than 70,000 prisoners and arrested people each year, and boasts the largest public mental-health facility and substance-abuse treatment center in the city.
Quigley and other critics say they are distressed by Foti's unchallenged campaign claim that one-fourth of all general equivalency diplomas (GEDs) diplomas in New Orleans went to inmates enrolled in his education programs. "I think it is wonderful that the sheriff is doing that, but it is a horrible indictment of our state's public education system," Quigley says.
Noting Foti's social service programs, Quigley says: "He has done a good job of making the sheriff's office part of the community. But the relationship between prisoners and the jail is very different." Quigley says he hopes the new sheriff will work to make it easier for attorneys and families to visit inmates and improve links with their community.
Quigley and others worry that too many politicos are eyeing the sheriff's seat as a patronage-rich sinecure. "It should not be just for someone who has name recognition and who wants a power center," Quigley says.
The new sheriff must be ready to run a major institution, with an aging command staff and an underpaid workforce that oversees a noisy, high-stress environment. "We should not have people's jobs dependent on who wins an election," Quigley adds, an apparent reference to the absence of civil service protection for sheriff's employees.
In some respects, Quigley allows, Foti will be a hard act to follow. "He has been a very artful politician," the lawyer says.
One of the more radical proposals for the future of the sheriff's office comes from a conservative, pro-law enforcement organization.
"I would like to see if we can consolidate the sheriff's office into the police department," says Raphael Goyeneche, president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission. Merging the operations of the jails and police would ensure greater accountability and might help the city realize some savings as well, he says.
Goyeneche admits the patronage attached to the criminal sheriff's office makes such a move an uphill fight. "I think that would be very difficult to achieve politically, but this (merger proposal) is an opportunity to examine if there is not a better way of doing it." Goyeneche says. "Maybe it is something Mayor Nagin should examine to accomplish that."
If the proposal flops, Goyeneche continues, the next elected sheriff should set forth clear goals and objectives for his office, spell out plans for current employees in the office, and provide possible alternatives to incarceration.
Other observers say now is the time to consider merging the offices of the civil sheriff and criminal sheriff, a proposal that would surely disrupt the plans of politicians seeking a sinecure. Brett Prendergast, a plaintiff's lawyer and former federal magistrate clerk who has been involved in Orleans Parish Prison cases since 1986, says OPP needs to be downsized.
"We need a sheriff who is looking to run a parish jail, not the largest penitentiary in the state of Louisiana," he says. "I question whether it is a good thing to have such a large prison in the middle of the city."
Prendergast says state prisoners account for a large number of OPP inmates and the state should resume responsibility for their housing. (A report authored 20 years ago by Foti CAO Geerken accurately predicted that a "sharp rise" in state prisoners housed in the parish prison was "likely to continue into the foreseeable future, given the lack of new state prisons.")
Meanwhile, Prendergast says, potential candidates for Foti's job should think long and hard before qualifying for the office. "It's a very tough job," he says. "People tend to view the system as a whole unit, but it's not." Foti's successor will have to spend a lot of time just visiting the various jails and prisons -- the Intake Processing Center; Templeman Jails I, II and III; the House of Detention; Old Parish Prison; and the Community Correctional Center to name a few.
"It's going to be a big learning curve for somebody," Prendergast says. "You will need somebody with a lot of energy to run the place. Foti, whatever his faults, had that energy."
Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says he hopes the new sheriff will address remedies for prison conditions spelled out in Hamilton V. Morial, a federal consent decree arising from a 1969 inmate suit. The wide-ranging suit, which predates Foti's induction as sheriff, is now focusing on prisoner medical care, including treatment for pregnant women inmates, Cook says.
In recent years, four separate inmate custody deaths at the jail made headlines, and Foti responded with the well-publicized hiring of a full-time medical director and other reforms. "Some issues have been improved to one degree or another," Cook says. "There is no doubt the lawsuit has made a difference. [Foti] has been encouraged and prodded to that end. You have to give him credit."
An annual audit conducted for the Legislative Auditor's Office showed that the sheriff's office is a defendant in various lawsuits. The office is self-insured. At the end of 2002, the sheriff had a $17.3 million insurance fund, from which $4.9 million was designated for the payment of claims liabilities.
Cook says he would like to see the new sheriff use his office as a bully pulpit to preach prevention and encourage alternatives to incarceration. "We need to talk about strengthening the family. Putting more people in jail just weakens the family. Most of the people locked up are going to come back into the community. If they have been mistreated, they are more likely to be angry and harm persons in the community when they come out."
Sue Weischer, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, advocates for some 200 detainees of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service housed at the jail. Detainees include those who have committed no crimes and those who have completed criminal sentences but are awaiting deportation.
"I think it would be great if people that are interested in seeing changes at the prison get together and develop some ideas for improvement," Weischer says. Key concerns include prison staffing and training, family requests for expanded visiting hours, follow-up on consent decree issues, and providing information on legal rights for INS detainees, she says.
Sitting in a veterinarian's office with his German shepherd "Magnum," Angola Warden Burl Cain talks on his cell phone about Foti's pending career move. Cain compared prisons. Foti has more than 7,000 prisoners; Cain has about 5,000.
"My difficulty is that my prisoners have long, long sentences -- his does not," Cain says.
Angola is an 18,000-acre prison farm, where legions of inmates work in the fields. "[Foti] is in the city. He doesn't have the land and area to let them exercise. His prison is very complex. I admire the job he does because he doesn't have any more violence than he's had with that many prisoners in a big ol' high-rise building."
Cain praises Foti's management skills and recommends that his successor retain the sheriff's staff. "Whoever gets his job had better keep his people," says Cain, who has been managing prisons for 22 years.
"It's not how good you are, because you can't manage 7,000 people yourself, it's how good that you manage and organize the staff that you hire that determines whether you are successful or not. You are dealing with life-and-death situations, so therefore [Foti's successor] better be good at it. I certainly wouldn't do a lot of changes because [OPP] is working now. And if it ain't broke don't fix it."
Contrary to some public perceptions, a warden's own grievances do not stem solely from housing convicted murderers, rapists and robbers. "The biggest headaches are employees," Cain says. "I have 1,800 employees. Organization and leadership is critical ... keeping them at work, keeping them to perform their duty constitutionally and not to use too much force. This is a complex job."
Inmate medical care is another major pain for any jailer. "Can you imagine 'pill call' in the morning to get every one of those guys his blood pressure pill and this pill and that pill?" Cain says. "And be sure that [an inmate] doesn't commit suicide, with the mental health problems he has?"
Another challenge for Foti's successor will be staying within his budget for food, shelter, medicine and clothing for inmates. "What if you run out of toilet paper? You could have a riot on your hands." Cain says.
"Think about feeding 7,000 meals three times a day," Cain continues. "You got to keep the stove working. You need to have a back-up generator working in case the electricity goes out. That's a crazy job. Foti is a hell of an administrator. We've all thought that."
Any changes Foti's successor introduces should be made slowly and not all at once, Cain says. "Prisoners don't like a lot of changes. And I wouldn't do any staff changes. I would go in and pat them on the back."
The choice for new sheriff is an important one, says UNO criminologist Peter Scharf, author of the 1982 book Toward a Just Correctional System. "I hope the new sheriff is into learning, Scharf says. "It will be a very difficult transition, I think.
"The glue that keeps jails and prisons together is very subtle, especially with a prison that size. If you have not done it, there is a huge risk of instability," Scharf says. "Charlie was wild enough to be effective. He was a lawyer and he knew his criminology. His top managers will probably go with him to the A.G.'s office. New Orleans has to really think about this election."