Stephanie Grace: No honeymoon for sheriff winner

The voters have yet to speak, but this much we already know about the winner of Saturday’s runoff election for Orleans Parish sheriff: He won’t get a honeymoon.

A victory by either incumbent Marlin Gusman or his predecessor-turned-rival Charles Foti won’t usher in an era of optimism over the future of the troubled Orleans Parish Prison, long considered and more recently officially decreed among the most dangerous in the nation. There won’t be a period of hope, no matter how unrealistic, for a fresh start.

Gusman can claim all he wants that the prison was a mess when he got there, and by all independent accounts, he’s right.

Foti can insist that Gusman’s complaints about the sprawling facility’s design are a cop-out, that the direct-supervision complex under construction is no cure-all when deep staffing and management issues remain. He’s got a point, too. Gusman has done a good job shifting the conversation to the future, and the new layout will certainly provide deputies much better sight lines and access to their charges. But it’s hard to forget that, even as he signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice promising to bring the prison up to constitutional standards, Gusman denied he ran an unconstitutional jail in the first place.

The truth is that both contestants are too tied to the problems to come off as a credible solution.

Norris Henderson, a prominent reform activist and former prisoner, put it this way: “It’s been depicted as the election from hell. Folks are not too gung-ho about either of the candidates because the combination of the two of them has been 40 years of failure.”

But of course, someone will win Saturday, and that realization — or more like resignation — seems to be behind Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s reluctance to get involved, even though he’s enthusiastically endorsed in most other city races, most recently the runoff for coroner, and even though Gusman is a onetime political ally and Foti a distant relative.

Landrieu is no apologist for Gusman. In fact, last year, he went so far as to call for the jail to be put under federal oversight.

“Stated simply, the person at the top is neither accountable, nor capable of exercising leadership skills,” the city insisted in court documents that cited the notorious 2009 video showing prisoners gambling, doing drugs and brandishing guns inside OPP, as well as the convictions of several jail officials in a federal bid-rigging case. Gusman, who is black, responded by suggesting the white mayor was playing the race card.

Yet the administration and Sheriff’s Office remain joined at the hip when it comes to paying for the federally mandated reforms, so there’s really nothing else to do but try to figure it out together.

That process will pick up again just days after the election, when various parties are due back in court. A new filing by the Justice Department and a group of inmates leading up to the hearing paints a dire picture of the status quo. Violence is actually on the rise, the document argues, including sexual assault; the filing highlights one bone-chilling case in which an inmate was “raped, forced to perform oral sex, tied up and stuffed in a laundry bag” on a tier where no deputy was stationed.

“OPP is a chaotic, dangerous facility that puts prisoners at an unreasonable risk of serious harm,” the attorneys wrote. “We cannot wait any longer to implement the reforms that have been held to be necessary to remedy the egregious unconstitutional conditions at OPP.”

The legal filing argues that the office, whoever will run it, needs at least $10 million more this budget year to meet the terms of the court-ordered overhaul. Complying with expert recommendations to bring deputies’ salaries up to parity with area law enforcement agencies would cost $22 million.

So here are my predictions for Saturday night: Someone, either Gusman or Foti, will be declared the winner. And it’s unlikely that anyone else will feel like celebrating.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.