New jail overseer sought

Making good on plans announced last week, the city of New Orleans has asked a federal court to immediately appoint someone other than Sheriff Marlin Gusman to run the jail.

The city’s motion Tuesday to place the jail under federal receivership comes after last week’s release of videos — apparently made by inmates — that show inmates using drugs and brandishing a gun in a cell; plus scenes of an inmate roaming Bourbon Street while boasting that he’s supposed to be locked up.

The motion asks the court “to appoint a receiver to control all of the administrative, correctional and financial aspects of the operations of Orleans Parish Prison (“OPP”) and related facilities — starting immediately.” Among the reasons it cites are recent guilty pleas by two former jail officials to bribery charges, as well as the videos.

Gusman said the building where the 2009 videos were made — and from which the roaming inmate escaped — has been closed, and he noted that a new jail building is under construction.

Gusman has signed an agreement with the Justice Department to reform jail operations. The city opposes that agreement, saying it could force taxpayers to spend millions more on a poorly run jail. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has also said the agreement’s potential cost, by some estimates $22 million a year, would undermine reforms of the city Police Department and jeopardize other city services.

The Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents inmates who sued to improve jail conditions, are urging approval of the agreement, noting that funding issues will be sorted out during a hearing next month. They said testimony about sexual assaults, suicides, and beatings by guards and among prisoners is evidence of the need for the pact.

“The people of the city are investing over $225 million to build new prison facilities and over $30 million each year in taxpayer money to operate the jail,” Landrieu said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “I cannot in good conscience cut vital services or raise taxes to put even more money into the operations of an office where waste, fraud, and abuse run rampant.”

Gusman blasted back late Tuesday in a prepared statement, calling the filing “another blatant political attack aimed at deflecting the attention away from the police consent decree and the jail consent decree.’’

He said Landrieu had decide to “pick another fight’’ instead of working for a solution, and pointed to his own record of public service.

“When I was CAO, the budget was balanced and the crime rate was cut in half,’’ he said.

Gusman said he has instituted reforms at the jail and Sheriff’s Office and had inherited old, outdated facilities and a workforce paid just above minimum wage. “Then Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed the jail complex,’’ he said.

Gusman said the consent decree is about a lack of funding. “Contrary to Mayor Landrieu’s blatant lie, his administration has not invested any money in the infrastructure of the jail or in retaining deputies,’’ he said. “Not only has he failed to invest any resources since he was elected, he has delayed the construction of the new jail by almost a year.’’

Now, he said, the mayor is trying to take FEMA money designated for jail facilities to fund pet projects. “He will come up with any legal argument to avoid leadership and to keep the attention off of his own failure to reduce crime in the city,’’ Gusman said.

Gusman said Landrieu has ignored repeated requests from the Sheriff’s Office for adequate funding for better deputy pay, training, better jail conditions and improvements in mental health care.

“Today’s legal filing is another effort by Mayor Landrieu to delay the improvements that the Department of Justice and the Sheriff’s Office have agreed to,” he said.

Advocate staff writer
Sara Pagones contributed
to this story.