Gusman fires back at critics, downplays jailhouse video

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman arrives at federal court Thursday with Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin, left, and Chief Earl Weaver Jr.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman arrives at federal court Thursday with Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin, left, and Chief Earl Weaver Jr.

After six hours of grilling in federal court, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman fired back at his critics at a news conference Thursday afternoon in which he blasted New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu while questioning the veracity of a salacious video that has dominated discussions the past two days.

With the yet-to-be constructed new prison facility as a backdrop, Gusman quickly ended any speculation that he might be considering retirement and instead laid most of the blame for problematic conditions in the jail at the feet of Landrieu’s administration.

Gusman said he’s committed to completing the new prison complex and transforming the Orleans Parish Prison.

“I’m here, I’m elected, and I’m going to do the job,” Gusman said. “I’m going to get this right and see this plan through to its completion.”

Gusman staged the news conference just hours after he left a hearing at the federal courthouse where he was questioned about his management style, prisoner escapes and his true motivation for agreeing to reform the Orleans Parish Prison under the eye of the U.S. Department of Justice. The hearing was set by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to determine if the city of New Orleans should be included in a suit against Gusman filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

During the hearing, Gusman was questioned repeatedly about how much he knew about problems at the jail, and whether he agreed with accusations levied by the Justice Department during its review of the facility. The Justice Department has identified widespread violence, sexual abuse and lax security at the facility. Gusman has been accused of being “hands-off” in his management style and failing to establish controls at the jail.

Gusman acknowledged problems at the jail at the news conference, but he blamed them on inadequate city funding that he said led to deplorable conditions and insufficient training. He also accused Landrieu of engaging in “Washington-style politics” and “Archie Bunker-rhetoric” in recent days.

Landrieu fired back in a statement issued late Thursday evening.

“It gets clearer every day that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is not keeping the prison secure and our city safe,” Landrieu said. “This week, expert after expert talked about mismanagement and said this was one of the worst run jails in the country.”

Landrieu said he is asking for the jail to be placed in receivership “so corrections experts can run the jail in a safe, secure and fiscally responsible way. I cannot in good conscience cut vital services or raise taxes to put even more money into an office where waste, fraud and abuse run rampant.”

Landrieu has been highly critical of Gusman’s management of the jail for months, but those critiques intensified this week after the release of a video showing inmates using narcotics, waving guns and apparently taking field trips from the jail.

The mayor has said the jail would be better served by being taken over by the federal government and having its finances managed by local business leaders. Landrieu has argued that the city shouldn’t have to finance the cost of the consent decree involving the jail, particularly not without more input into how city dollars are spent.

Gusman accused Landrieu of providing plenty of attacks but very few solutions. He claimed that Thursday’s testimony confirmed that city officials helped negotiate the consent agreement for the jail but now are seeking to shirk their responsibilities. Gusman said that mayor has failed to show leadership in solving the problems at the jail.

“When the mayor’s not denying there’s a problem, he’s dragging his feet on every solution,” Gusman said. “The city has tried to get out of its legal commitment by throwing mud in every direction.”

Gusman raised questions about the video, implying that it was immaterial and that it looked like it had been altered. The sheriff repeatedly noted that the video was shot in 2009 and that the House of Detention, where it was shot, has been closed for a year. He blamed the shocking contraband shown in the videos on the problems at the House of Detention, not on failures by his staff.

“That video from 2009 revealed in graphic detail the direct effect of crumbling jail facilities,” Gusman said. “(House of Detention) no longer houses inmates and will never house inmates again on my watch.”

But Gusman could not seem to provide an explanation for how heroin, cocaine and a gun were smuggled into the jail. He did say that the apparent escape of some inmates resulted in arrests but said that when authorities searched cells for the contraband shown on the video they found nothing. Gusman said there were two different searches of the cell and a strip search of inmates.

Gusman repeated questions about whether the video had been “doctored,” claiming that when he saw a portion of it previously, it was of much poorer quality. He said there was no need to call in another agency to investigate the scenes in the video or to determine if there was involvement by deputies. Without actual contraband, he said, the Sheriff’s Office could not proceed with more cases.

“We didn’t think that we could sustain a case based on that video,” Gusman said. “It wasn’t much that I saw.”

He stressed that the conditions shown in the video were the result of problems at the House of Detention, which is why it is no longer used. Gusman also said that some inmates weren’t bothered by some of the things seen in the video, like pallets on floors.

“A lot of them don’t like to sleep on the beds, they prefer sleeping on the floor,” Gusman said.