Orleans jail faces brutal staffing shortfall, expert says

Witness sees hiring problem

So many new guards are needed to adequately staff the Orleans Parish jail that the task of hiring them is simply impossible in the short term, a jail expert for the U.S. Department of Justice testified on Tuesday.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office would need to hire more than 400 new deputies — doubling the current staff — to keep proper watch over the 2,400 inmates now housed in a collection of aging and mostly decrepit buildings, David Parrish said.

“They need to be here right now. The sooner this process starts, the better,” said Parrish, who for decades headed up the jail in Hillsborough County, Fla.

Parrish advocates for the kind of “direct supervision” jail system that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has in mind after he cuts the ribbon on the new jail facility now rising along Interstate 10.

“I don’t think it’s doable.”

The 1,438-bed new jail is slated to open sometime next spring.

Even with its better design, Parrish said, the Sheriff’s Office will need to hire more than 200 extra deputies to handle the load under constitutional guidelines contained in a jail reform pact that Gusman, inmate advocates and the Justice Department signed eight months ago.

That doesn’t account for the 30 percent annual attrition rate for deputies that a top sheriff’s official claimed in testimony on Monday.

Parrish’s estimate of more than $22 million for the jail reforms — mostly from increased staffing costs — is triple what the expert for the city has estimated.

Attorneys for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration are trying to limit the damage from a jail reform tab that they argue could kneecap the city budget.

Among the badly needed staff additions, Parrish said, is a professional jail administrator to run the place.

Sheriff’s spokesman Phil Stelly said a field of about 30 candidates has been whittled to two: Michael Tidwell, who has headed the corrections department in the Orlando, Fla., area for the past six years; and Cathy Fontenot, longtime assistant warden at Angola state penitentiary.

Fontenot’s rise to finalist raises questions about the selection process. Gusman named a seven-person selection committee that includes two of her bosses: Angola state penitentiary Warden Burl Cain — her direct boss — and state corrections Secretary James LeBlanc.

Stelly and members of the committee insisted there was no conflict, because Cain and LeBlanc both skipped the formal interview process for Fontenot.

“They did not take part in the interview with Fontenot. We didn’t hear (their) opinions about her one way or another. We assume they would have been positive,” said Michael Cowan, head of the New Orleans Crime Coalition and the search committee chairman.

The jail administrator post, which is required under a federal consent decree that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved in June, will be charged with running the jail and will “collaborate” with Gusman and Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin, according to a job description provided by the sheriff’s office.

Norris Henderson, another committee member and executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender, said the candidates were assured that they would have free rein to manage a jail notorious for inmate violence, poor mental health and sick care, and rampant contraband.

Also, under the consent decree, a monitor will be appointed to track progress on reforms and report to Africk.

“Systemically, they’ve been doing things this way for 40 years and don’t know what change is,” Henderson said. “If we can get somebody in here that understands we have to clean house, we’ll be all right. To be truthful, we don’t have a choice.”

Fontenot declined to comment on her qualifications for the job. Tidwell could not be reached.

Stelly said Gusman is “moving aggressively” to pick the jail administrator — a post the Sheriff’s Office has never had — but wouldn’t say when a decision will come.

Tuesday marked the end of a two-day court hearing over who — the city or the Sheriff’s Office — should pay, and how much, to bring the jail complex up to constitutional snuff through the end of the year.

The city’s expert, James Austin, pegged the reform tab at about $7 million in additional costs per year, assuming a swift reduction in the inmate population, largely from the removal of about 500 state-funded inmates.

Parrish said the tab for reforms to the existing jail at current inmate numbers would run some $22 million extra per year.

He also said a shift to the direct supervision model, which places guards among the inmates in each cell block, will require vast retraining of deputies.

“It comes down to that decision: Do you want to run the whole jail, or just the control room?” Parrish said. “Then you’re not running a jail at all. The inmates are running it, and then you end up in a situation like this.”

Parrish called it a mistake to count on a lower jail population.

“Once that happens, that’s going to be news,” he said. “But in the meantime, the jail has to run. Don’t leave the jail system holding the bag.”

Parrish, like Austin, figures that Gusman will need to keep open the city-owned Templeman V jail building.

That would require a change to a city ordinance that mandates that all of the old, permanent jail buildings be shut down with the opening of the new jail.

It’s not clear when Africk will rule on the short-term reform costs.

Another hearing slated for Sept. 30 will tackle long-term costs for the reforms once the new jail opens.