Race pits incumbent against former sheriff, new challenger

It would be an understatement to call 2013 a bad year for Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

In March, two high-ranking underlings pleaded guilty in federal court to separate kickback schemes, admitting they had taken thousands of dollars in bribes from contractors who benefited from steady work at Gusman’s jail complex.

Weeks later, a four-day federal court hearing spotlighted the appalling conditions at the jail. Corrections experts testified that rapes and beatings were commonplace and the medical and mental health care was abysmal — in sum, that Orleans Parish Prison was “likely the worst large city jail in the United States,” as one expert witness put it.

To top it off, a shocking video that surfaced during the hearing quickly went viral. It showed inmates housed in Gusman’s since-shuttered House of Detention drinking beer, shooting drugs, playing with a loaded gun — even frolicking on Bourbon Street. Apparently filmed several years earlier, the video graphically portrayed for the public what experts spelled out in more clinical terms: that the jail was a lawless place where, if anyone was in control, it was the inmates.

As the wreckage piled up, Mayor Mitch Landrieu stepped up a series of attacks on Gusman’s leadership, eventually declaring in court papers that the sheriff couldn’t be entrusted with management of the jail and urging a federal takeover.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk decided against that approach, but he declared conditions at the jail unconstitutional and, in a remarkable, 104-page order, wrote that the facility had left “an indelible stain on the community.”

A companion document — a consent decree among the Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had sued Gusman on behalf of inmates — requires the sheriff to make a series of reforms, ranging from more careful classification of inmates and enhanced suicide-prevention measures to new staffing mandates aimed at putting more deputies on the tiers.

Being elected sheriff of Orleans Parish was once something like a lifetime appointment. But the onslaught of unflattering revelations dimmed Gusman’s once-bright political star, and the courthouse crowd spent much of the year bandying about the names of possible challengers. In the end, just three materialized, only two of whom have a real chance to win: Charles Foti, who ran the jail for three decades before becoming the state’s attorney general in 2003, and Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas, a former New Orleans police lieutenant who now heads the 13-member SUNO police department.

The third challenger, gardener Quentin Brown, is making his fifth run for public office; he has never drawn more than 4 percent of the vote in his previous efforts.

Gusman — a veteran city official with business and law degrees who served as Mayor Marc Morial’s top aide before being elected to the City Council in 2000 — doesn’t come off as a natural politician, yet he has raised far more money than any of his opponents and boasts a stack of endorsements from various civic and political groups. He has never lost an election.

Many political observers now give him a better-than-even chance at re-election, though the Feb. 1 primary will be hard-fought. A poll of 746 likely voters released this week by Win Partners — which says it has no candidate in the race — showed Gusman in front with 29 percent, Foti next with 22 percent and Thomas third with 9 percent. Leading the pack was “undecided,” at 39 percent.

The challengers

Not so long ago, Foti was invincible at the polls in New Orleans. In a couple of his seven re-election campaigns, he didn’t even draw an opponent. In 2002, the last time he was on the ballot as sheriff, he hauled in more than 70 percent of the vote. The next year, he aimed higher, winning election as state attorney general.

But his political career seemed to be over six years ago after he ordered the arrest of a doctor and two nurses he accused of euthanizing several sick and elderly patients trapped at Memorial Medical Center in the grim days after Hurricane Katrina.

The arrests, announced with fanfare, soon blew up in Foti’s face: Doctors and most members of the public seemed to think he was overreaching. A grand jury declined to file charges. Months later, Foti got less than a third of the vote in his bid for re-election and missed the runoff. He essentially disappeared from public view after that, quietly restarting a private law practice and opening a pizza joint in Metairie with his partners.

Foti doesn’t hesitate when asked what drew him back to the political game.

He says jail employees, some of whom worked under him, have been calling him to grouse and he feels a sense of duty to fix things.

“The experts said, and the court repeated in its order, that this is the most dangerous jail in the country, and it is the worst-run jail in the country,” Foti said. “To have a safe city you have to have a safe jail, which keeps people in custody.”

It remains to be seen whether Foti, now 76 and coming off six years on the sidelines, still has the touch that carried him to eight successive wins as sheriff.

A larger question is whether he’ll be able to persuade voters he is the right person to clean up the jail, given that many of the current gripes about OPP — particularly regarding inadequate medical care and flawed facilities — were sounded loudly and frequently during the Foti era. Gusman has been hammering that point home during the campaign, repeatedly saying that after nearly a decade in the office, he is still trying to untangle the mess created by his predecessor.

Thomas’ stated reason for getting into the race is almost identical to Foti’s: He says he can’t stand by and watch the jail sink further into the abyss. On the stump, he frequently quotes from Africk’s order, lingering over some of its most disturbing passages. He is unsparing in his criticism of Gusman.

“The management of this jail has brought national embarrassment to the city,” Thomas says. “I have never seen a public agency to have so many management and operational problems.”

Politically, there would seem to a clear opening for Thomas: The question at the heart of the race is who’s to blame for the jail’s dysfunction, and Gusman and Foti have spent most of their time pointing fingers at each other. Thomas can say unequivocally that he bears no blame for the jail’s sorry condition.

On the other hand, he lacks the name recognition and money Gusman and Foti have, and even though he has twice won election to a district seat on the Orleans Parish School Board, representing New Orleans East, he has yet to show he can be competitive in a citywide election. He got just 13 percent of the vote in a 2010 state Senate contest.

A decade ago, Thomas ran for sheriff and finished with less than 5 percent of the vote in an election that featured three big names: NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley; Gusman, then a member of the City Council; and Bill Hunter, who served as interim sheriff after Foti became attorney general.

Meanwhile, as president of the School Board, Thomas has been accused by critics of polarizing the board, which has been riven by racially divided votes. Thomas and two other black members have generally been on the losing end, with a coalition of three white members plus Nolan Marshall, who is black, on the other side.

Much of the controversy has revolved around the board’s contracting practices, with Thomas and other allies arguing that minority-owned firms, or DBEs, aren’t getting a big enough slice of the work as the system rebuilds. That fight has spawned others, including Thomas’ public crusade to get rid of interim Superintendent Stan Smith, largely over Smith’s perceived failure to enforce the system’s DBE regulations.

When talking about his School Board service, Thomas tends to note the board’s strong financial footing and its high test scores, but the scores result in large part from the fact that the board retained the few high-functioning schools in the city while ceding the rest to the much larger, state-controlled Recovery School District.

Thomas struggled for a clear answer when he was asked at a recent forum why none of the 17 RSD schools whose scores have risen sufficiently to allow them to return to local control had chosen to do so. But leaders of some of those schools are clearly wary of the School Board’s political antics.

An ‘indelible stain’

The violence cataloged in Africk’s order is chilling. Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic is this: More than 600 Orleans Parish jail inmates were taken to local emergency rooms in 2012, compared with just seven inmates from a comparably sized jail in Memphis, Tenn.

Gusman maintains the figures exaggerate the problem, saying some inmates are taken to the hospital out of an abundance of caution.

The judge concluded that beatings and sexual violence flourish in the jail largely because of inadequate staffing. But it’s not just that there aren’t enough deputies. As many as half of the jail’s “direct security posts” go unfilled, Africk wrote, in part because “administrators prioritize staffing non-security posts before security posts, a practice opposite to that used in most prisons and jails.”

Even when guards know or have good reason to believe violence is occurring on a tier, they often don’t check it out, Africk wrote. He said jail personnel also do a terrible job of classifying prisoners, meaning that “predators” are often kept in the same cells as low-risk, nonviolent inmates — putting those inmates at great risk. The problem often persists even after an inmate commits a violent assault while in the jail, the judge wrote.

Endemic violence is far from the only problem cited in Africk’s order. He also called out Gusman’s operation for a long list of “systemic” problems, ranging from unsanitary conditions to free-flowing contraband and woeful medical care.

Gusman has sought to downplay the federal findings and publicly disputes the notion that conditions inside the jail are unconstitutional. Even so, he now portrays the consent decree as a collaboration that he welcomes rather than an intrusion he tried to beat back.

“Somebody’s always going to second-guess you,” Gusman said. “Keep in mind, we did not litigate every point that was brought up. A lot of this, quote, ‘fairness hearing’ was unnecessary. A lot of what the mayor did was unnecessary.”

He has little regard for armchair critics who, he believes, don’t understand that running a jail is messy.

“It’s real easy for someone sitting in the stands to say, ‘That’s not the play I would have called,’ ” he said.

The Foti years

Gusman likes to say that he “inherited a mess, and Katrina made it much worse.”

In 2004, he took over an office that Foti had held for three decades, during which time the jail grew from a modest facility housing roughly 1,000 inmates to a vast complex with more than 7,000 beds, making it one of the largest jails in America.

That group included thousands of state and federal prisoners in addition to the pre-trial detainees the sheriff is required to house.

Foti’s critics, who are many, say he expanded the inmate population because he wanted a political empire: More prisoners meant more revenue and more employees; under Louisiana’s 1974 constitution, sheriff’s deputies are at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of the sheriff.

Foti portrays himself as less of an empire-builder and more of a “MacGyver” character who came up with ingenious ways of meeting the demands of the public during a time when America’s prison population was mushrooming.

“We had to learn to adapt and change and do what was necessary to survive,” he said.

With the rapid expansion, the jail complex grew willy-nilly, and Gusman blames many of the problems he’s dealing with now on lack of planning by Foti. The complex of buildings, each with multiple entrances and exits, makes it very difficult to maintain security. Many buildings are old and in poor condition. Some of the buildings were never meant to house prisoners, such as the Conchetta facility on Tulane Avenue, which is a converted motel.

The new jail now under construction will reduce those problems dramatically, Gusman often says.

Likewise, Gusman says many of the staffing problems flagged by federal experts will be solved by the new jail’s design, which on most floors positions a deputy in a central location from which he will be able to see most areas of the tier. Each floor will have recreation facilities, a meeting room and laundry facilities.

“The things that we’ve been doing all point in the right direction, to a good conclusion,” Gusman says.

Foti and Thomas scoff at the notion that old infrastructure has much to do with the jail’s problems.

“The buildings — whether the building is brand new or a couple years old or real old — the buildings are not the problem,” Foti says. “It’s how you utilize them, how you utilize your staff, how you utilize your deputies. A new building is not going to change your training and the other things in the consent decree.”

“Leaders don’t place blame,” Thomas says. “They find solutions.”

Thomas is particularly critical of what he views as a “code of silence” in the jail that discourages inmates and deputies from reporting misconduct and says he had a record while a police officer of speaking out against other officers who did wrong.

“I didn’t like that in the NOPD, and I’m going to do everything in my power to change it at the Sheriff’s Office,” said Thomas, who for years headed the NOPD’s Black Organization of Police. “We do a disservice when we fail to report acts of abuse.”

Decades of consent decrees

Gusman doesn’t believe the buildings are the only mess Foti left him. The jail, Gusman often points out, was under numerous federal consent decrees during Foti’s tenure.

The best-known and longest-running decree stemmed from an inmate overcrowding lawsuit brought in 1969, before Foti became sheriff. Then, too, unconstitutional conditions were alleged.

The suit was never closed, and it was re-energized periodically. In the mid-1980s, a team of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project alleged that the improvements stemming from the original case had been lost as the jail expanded by leaps and bounds. It was Foti’s newly erected 400-bed “tent city” — created to avoid running afoul of the consent decree’s language on overcrowding — that got the ACLU’s attention, according to Mark Lopez, an ACLU lawyer on that case.

Lopez wrote a retrospective in the early 1990s that said the problems at the jail included “double, triple, and quadruple bunking; inmates sleeping on the floor; operation in a virtual lock-down status; inadequate medical services” — in short, many of the same problems that plague the jail now. There was also a high number of in-custody deaths, Lopez said in an interview, though he couldn’t remember an exact figure.

In Lopez’s memory, the biggest problems were overcrowding and poor medical care, including a “complete indifference to people who were mentally ill and people who had AIDS.”

But inmate violence was relatively rare, he said.

“As I recall, it wasn’t fraught with violence,” he said. “They wouldn’t stand for it. There might have been some brutality by guards. They ran a tight ship, as I recall.”

Civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, who has sued both sheriffs over inmate deaths and has been highly critical of the jail under both men, agreed that the violence at Foti’s prison was “not to the extent of what has been happening over there in the last five years. The rapes, the stabbings, the fights, the trauma from violence, the injuries from violence — I don’t ever remember it being this bad under Foti.”

Howell and other jail critics wonder why Gusman hasn’t moved more aggressively to address the violence issues, noting that reports of violence haven’t ended since the consent decree was signed last summer. Asked about that at a forum last week, Gusman said many inmates are difficult to control and promised the new jail building will improve things.

“Given the level of violence there now, I don’t understand why it’s not ‘all hands on deck’ in the short run to address the violence,” Howell said. “I don’t understand why it hasn’t been treated as the critical emergency it is.”

If Foti ran a tighter ship in some ways, he was also tighter with information, usually submitting a one-page budget each year to the City Council that offered no clue about how he planned to spend the millions he would get. Gusman, as the city’s chief administrative officer and then head of the City Council’s Budget Committee, routinely groused about it. Gusman has gradually offered more details about the sheriff’s budget, although it has taken repeated prodding from the council.

One of Foti’s most controversial practices was the routine strip-searching of nonviolent inmates in groups, which resulted in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of up to 80,000 inmates. It was settled in 2007 for $10 million.

While Foti talks up the literacy and drug-rehab programs he offered, critics say they were a low priority. A 1993 Times-Picayune story cited statistics showing fewer than one in 10 inmates took part in rehab or educational programming during the prior year.

Inmates “like to get up late,” Foti said at the time. “They like to watch the soaps. They like to stay up all night.”

On the campaign trail, Foti often says his much larger jail had “one-tenth” as many problems as Gusman’s. As evidence, he has produced a 2002 report by consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers, which inspected the jail over four days on behalf of the Justice Department.

The report, aimed at determining whether the jail was safe, humane and constitutional, is so glowing it could have been written by Foti himself. It even lauds the jail’s health care apparatus, which has been dogged by criticism for decades, calling it “organized with good systems, continuous monitoring, conscientious staff and strong leadership.”

Critics chalk up those conclusions to a private contractor working for a Justice Department that, under President George W. Bush, was less aggressive about rooting out perceived civil rights infractions.

Howell, who does believe violence has increased since Gusman took over, says she otherwise doesn’t see a huge distinction between Foti’s tenure and Gusman’s. She noted that Gusman, who had Foti’s endorsement when he first ran for sheriff, kept on many of Foti’s high-ranking administrators and medical staff.

“You have to ask, looking at Foti and Gusman, why do we keep having these problems over a span of 40 years? There’s a real continuity of culture ... there’s been no real change,” Howell said.

Where to now?

Even the harshest critics of the New Orleans jail acknowledge that being sheriff is a tough job.

Howell says she views the office as an “almost toxic position” because the sheriff has “too much power and a lack of accountability.”

She expects the consent decree to result in real improvements for inmates and guards but adds that “it’s going to take time.”

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he believes the jail and the Sheriff’s Office are going to improve regardless of who’s elected because of the intense scrutiny the recent lawsuits have brought.

“I think the jail is in better shape now than a year ago, and I think it’ll be in better shape a year from now, regardless of who’s running it,” Goyeneche said. “The consent decree is going to take a lot of discretion away from whoever is the sheriff.”

Not only does the consent decree require the sheriff to employ a corrections administrator — who has already been hired — but it also includes a monitor, who will watch the reforms and report back to the judge.

“There’s basically a referee sitting over the shoulder of the sheriff,” Goyeneche said. “He (the sheriff) is going to have to execute a lot of this, but he’ll be executing a plan that’s been agreed on in federal court, and it’s binding on whoever is the sheriff.”

Amid the blame game, Goyeneche said he thinks it’s also sometimes lost on people that City Hall — which owns many of the sheriff’s facilities and is supposed to maintain them — doesn’t have clean hands.

“Not all of the problems with that jail can be linked back to Sheriff Foti or Sheriff Gusman,” he said, “The city historically has not maintained its facilities to the standards that are now being enforced by the federal government. If the city had done that years ago, we wouldn’t be facing some of these problems.”