Search for corrections administrator to run troubled New Orleans jail narrowed to five finalists

The search for a professional to watch over Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s jail has been narrowed to a handful of candidates from across the country, a few of whom have faced recent controversy.

Last week, Gusman announced that he had formed a committee to pick a full-time corrections administrator, a demand of the court-enforced jail reform plan that the sheriff, inmate advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice inked in December.

The idea: Find someone experienced to “analyze and review” operations at a jail that some experts have described as the worst in the nation, riddled by violence against inmates, rampant contraband, suicides and bare-bones treatment of mentally ill and sick inmates.

From 30 candidates, the committee has winnowed the field to five. They include Michael Tidwell, head of corrections in the Orlando, Fla. area for six years; Phil Greer, who runs a three-county jail operation in Minnesota; Greg Futch, who in November took over as warden of the Washington, D.C., jail; Ramon Rustin, jail administrator in Albuquerque, N.M.; and Cathy Fontenot, assistant warden at Angola state penitentiary.

The committee, which includes state corrections Secretary James LeBlanc, Angola penitentiary Warden Burl Cain and the leaders of both the New Orleans Crime Coalition and the Metropolitan Crime Commission, largely agreed on the five candidates on paper. Cain and LeBlanc are both Fontenot’s supervisors.

Formal interviews will begin Friday, said committee member Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender. Henderson said he was skeptical at first but has been assured that the new corrections administrator will have a good deal of autonomy.

“One of the biggest tragedies with the sheriff’s operation was, he wasn’t a very hands-on person with the jail,” Henderson said. “This is our chance right here. Brand new ship. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Michael Cowan, head of the Crime Coalition and the committee chairman, declined to comment on the candidates.

Under the consent decree that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved in June, the sheriff must develop a staffing plan within 90 days and hire the corrections administrator 90 days after that. Henderson said he expects the committee to pick its choice within a few weeks.

Futch resigned as head of the Osceola County, Fla., jail in 2010 after incidents that included the high-profile escape of a Bloods gang leader, according to media reports. He could not be reached Wednesday.

Media reports also said Tidwell was pressured to resign in April following a scandal involving a shooting spree by a poorly monitored defendant in a home confinement program. But Tidwell, 63, disputed that account in a brief telephone interview, saying he put in for a long-planned retirement and remains the Orange County jails chief.

“I’m still gainfully, very employed,” he said. Linda Weinberg, deputy county administrator in Orange County, backed Tidwell’s account, saying he will remain on duty until Sept. 30 and had alerted the county to his plans months before he put in for retirement when the controversy erupted.

Tidwell declined to discuss the job in New Orleans, but said he thinks “the sheriff and the mayor are both rooted in providing the best service for the citizens.”

Fontenot, 42, has worked in Louisiana corrections for more than two decades, including 18 years at Angola. A familiar figure as a spokeswoman for events such as the annual prison rodeo, she said she would aim to reach out to the public, “to get everybody involved” in changes at the jail.

Fontenot said she sees improvement in Gusman’s office in reporting violent incidents and the grievance process.

“I think it’s primed for the kind of change that will endure,” Fontenot said. “It would be the challenge of a career.”

It does not appear that the public will have input into the final decision. A sheriff’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the candidates.