Sheriff testifies about jailhouse video, pleas for funding

Embattled Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman testified in federal court today about a shocking video unearthed earlier this week depicting an out-of-control House of Detention in which inmates brazenly showed off drugs, cash and a loaded Glock .45.

Gusman’s testimony came as the city of New Orleans tries to persuade U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk to let it out from under a proposed consent decree at the Orleans Parish Prison. The city contends that the cost of compliance — about $22 million a year for half a decade — will cripple city services and tip the precarious public safety situation in New Orleans ever closer to anarchy.

The video, Gusman explained, had been in a safe within the jail’s Special Operations Division until the city, and then the FBI, demanded that he produce it.

Doing so was a challenge, Gusman said, because nobody at the jail knew the combination to open the safe.

The sheriff said the video was shot in the House of Detention, a building that he closed last year. It’s owned by the city, Gusman said.

The city argues that Gusman’s lack of leadership is the primary culprit driving brutal conditions at the jail and reiterated its call that the jail be turned over to federal receivership.

That would leave Gusman, an elected official, as the titular head of a parish lockup run by the federal government.

Africk said late in the day that federal receivership would be an unusually draconian step, one usually reserved for situations where an agency official has defied federal demands for reform. Gusman signed off on the proposed consent decree in December, effectively nullifying the argument that he is defying the federal government, Africk said.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice joined with the Southern Poverty Law Center, using the law center’s class-action lawsuit on behalf of allegedly abused inmates as leverage to get Gusman sign the consent decree.

But Gusman quickly moved to add the city as a third-party defendant in the litigation, arguing that the city is liable for financing the care and custody of inmates, through a “per prisoner” budget formula set under an earlier consent decree.

After vociferously fighting the consent decree and the class-action lawsuit, Gusman now contends that he is on the same page as the Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center and wants to fulfill the goals of the consent decree.

Gusman said he has repeatedly declared his need for a better-trained, better-paid staff at the jail and implored the city to provide the funding.

But his budget has remained roughly unchanged for the past five years. Gusman gets about $22 million in per-prisoner payments from the city annually and another $8 million or so to pay for prisoner health care, fuel and worker’s compensation. Orleans Parish Prison deputies are the lowest paid in the region, with starting pay set at $10 an hour.

After the city refused his 2013 request for an additional $15 million to improve staffing levels and pay, Gusman signed the consent decree and then sued the city.

“Given that the New Orleans Police Department had signed one, and concerns were being expressed about operations of the jail, I thought it would be a great step in improving public confidence in the jail and our operations,” Gusman said Thursday.

And yet, while insisting on the dire need for reform, Gusman has continued to maintain that jail conditions are not unconstitutionally brutal, as the lawsuit alleges.

At an afternoon news conference following his testimony, Gusman provided arrest reports about some of the inmates depicted in the now-viral 2009 video.

Two inmates involved in the guns-and-heroin jailhouse party were charged with escape. The video shows an inmate being filmed in the French Quarter before it cuts to that same inmate in the House of Detention shooting heroin.

Gusman said the main focus of his investigation at the time was to figure out if deputies had participated in the party or looked the other way as it occurred. He said that his officers had done two shakedowns after the video was unearthed but never found any contraband.

Not even the loaded Glock, which apparently has never been accounted for.

This story was reported by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans at http://thelensnola.org/