Orleans sheriff's testimony delayed

Advocate staff photo by ELIIOT KAMENITZ -- Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman arrives at the Federal Courthouse in New Orleans on Wednesday.
Advocate staff photo by ELIIOT KAMENITZ -- Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman arrives at the Federal Courthouse in New Orleans on Wednesday.

Aftershocks from Tuesday’s release of a video showing drug use and misconduct at Orleans Parish Prison continued to rumble Wednesday while court hearings regarding the federal takeover of the city’s jail rolled on.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman was scheduled to give his much-anticipated rebuttal to a video that has raised questions about his management, but that testimony was delayed until Thursday.

Gusman has repeatedly defended his tenure running the city’s jail and blamed many of the problems at the facility on inadequate funding from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is holding a hearing to determine if the city should be part of a federal lawsuit against Gusman filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of conditions at the jail.

The city has argued it should be exempt from the lawsuit, but Gusman had the city added because it provides financing for the facility.

However, even without Gusman’s testimony, the video showing inmates injecting, snorting and smoking narcotics continued to be big news. That video, which also showed inmates waving a handgun and appearing to escape custody, has been labeled “outrageous” by Landrieu, and he has used it to continue lambasting Gusman’s management of the facility.

“That’s a pretty good one, huh? I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s just quite amazing,” Landrieu said Wednesday. He said he saw the tapes for the first time Monday night, a day before they were shown in court. “It just lets you know the entire management system is in disarray,” he said.

Landrieu is seeking to have the federal government or local business leaders take over running the facility because he argues that Gusman can’t handle the responsibility. Gusman has fired back that conditions at the jail, particularly at the now closed House of Detention where the video was shot, are the result of dilapidated buildings and inadequate staffing because of insufficient funding from the city.

Gusman has promised to issue a public statement after his testimony Thursday.

However, Silas Lee, a national and local political consultant, said it’s not clear how much weight the public will give Gusman’s complaints about funding when they are viewed next to the disturbing video. Lee noted that large swaths of the city’s residents already had negative impressions of the jail, and the video only brings those impressions into sharper focus.

“A video like that is a worth a thousand words,” Lee said.

Political analyst Stephanie Grace noted that viral videos often have staying power and can provoke outrage for months or years after they first air. In addition, the video appears to undercut one of Gusman’s enduring claims, which is that his education and history as the city’s chief administrative officer make him a top-notch manager for the facility.

“It hurts of course to have anything like this come out,” Grace said.

But, neither Grace nor Lee seemed to think the video would torpedo Gusman’s political future. When Gusman was elected in 2010, he received more than 80 percent of the vote.

Lee noted that Gusman’s opponents will use the video to put him on the “defensive,” but the success of that ploy will depend on the political might of the opponent. Grace said a Landrieu-backed opponent might pose a problem but pointed to another reason why Gusman is unlikely to be unseated.

“I don’t know who would want that job under these circumstances,” she said.

Landrieu was joined in his push to have the federal government take over control of the jail by New Orleans Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the criminal justice committee. Guidry called the conditions at the jail “inhumane” and questioned providing city funds to the facility.

Landrieu repeatedly has argued that the city shouldn’t have to pay to implement the jail’s consent decree because it wouldn’t have oversight over the funds. The city is even pushing to be exempt from a separate consent decree involving the New Orleans Police Department if the jail agreement moves forward. Landrieu has been increasingly harsh in his criticism of Gusman, although he’s stopped short of calling for him to resign.

“It’s very hard to go to the public and ask them for more money just to pour it into that system,” Landrieu said Wednesday.

However, despite the conditions seen on the video and identified by the federal government, the Orleans Parish Prison is typically filled to capacity. That’s often because it houses inmates from the state Department of Corrections and other jurisdictions.

Gusman’s office has estimated that the average daily census in the facility is about 2,400 inmates, and roughly 1,700 of those inmates typically come from city arrests. Currently, the state has about 572 inmates being housed by New Orleans, said Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

She acknowledged that the video was troubling but said it must be viewed in its proper context. The video is more than three years old, and the facility where it was shot was closed at the state’s urging.

Laborde noted that when the House of Detention closed, the state began reducing the number of inmates it housed in New Orleans from a high of 969 to its current level. Laborde said state officials will visit New Orleans in the upcoming weeks, but there are no immediate plans to end the placement of state prisoners in the facility.

She also said that conditions in New Orleans have improved steadily over the past year.

But, while it’s still unclear what effect the video will have on Gusman’s future, the video immediately validated many complaints prison reform advocates have spoken about for years. ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman said the video is like the Cliffs Notes to voluminous reports the federal government released about conditions at the jail.

“We’ve been saying all along, exactly all of these things,” she said.

While some may watch the video and marvel at the level of high jinks inmates were able to engage in, Esman said she saw something different: A facility that is so poorly supervised that inmates can smuggle in handguns and take side trips to French Quarter strip clubs is also ripe for violence and sexual abuse. She noted that before the video began dominating conversation, the hearing featured testimony from an inmate who discussed being sexually assaulted at the jail with no place to turn for help.

“If there’s not supervision by the guards for partying, there’s no supervision by the guards for violence,” Esman said.

Robert English, a Loyola University criminal justice professor, noted that the video raises all sorts of troubling questions about the intake procedures at the prison and the level of training and discipline among staff members. English previously worked for the federal Bureau of Prisons inspecting facilities, and he said what he saw on the video was shockingly unique.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” English said.

He said well-run facilities strip new inmates down to the bare essentials. While contraband will be present, guards conduct regular searches of cells to limit its scope. To have real currency, a gun and a syringe in a single cell is astounding.

“I’m wondering who’s running this facility.” English said.

Danny Monteverde contributed to this report.