Lack of leadership blamed for sluggish reform pace
The outside expert monitoring a court-ordered plan to reform Orleans Parish Prison offered a blistering critique Tuesday of Sheriff Marlin Gusman, blaming the sluggish pace of change at the jail on a lack of leadership and initiative within the Sheriff’s Office.
The expert, Susan W. McCampbell, said she has rejected Gusman’s repeated excuse that city officials haven’t given him enough money to implement a federal consent decree intended to reverse deplorable conditions at OPP that have festered for years.
“The question has been posed to me several times whether it’s an issue of leadership or resources that continues to result in the Sheriff’s Office not moving forward with significant changes,” McCampbell said by phone during a status conference in U.S. District Court. “I really am now believing it’s a leadership issue — not a resource issue.”
Sounding exasperated, McCampbell delivered her harshest assessment to date on conditions within the troubled lockup. She said she cannot foresee the Sheriff’s Office achieving even partial compliance with the consent decree by the early part of next year, in large part because there is “not a vision for how it’s going to be done.”
“I generally believe there’s a lack of urgency to the task required by those in the Sheriff’s Office, by some people in the Sheriff’s Office,” McCampbell said, calling for Gusman’s chief corrections deputy, Michael A. Tidwell, to be given more autonomy in quarterbacking jail operations. “The premium seems to be on postponing the decisions — as the vernacular goes, ‘kicking the can down the road’ — and globally I find there’s a failure to understand the human impact when there’s failure to take action or make good decisions.”
“There needs to be some leadership and direction from the top of the Sheriff’s Office,” she added. “People need to get out of the way of doing the job that needs to be done.”
McCampbell placed some of the blame on city officials, who under state law are required to pay for inmate care but are butting heads with Gusman over how to spend limited taxpayer dollars. That “bickering,” McCampbell said, is allowing “serious, ongoing harm” to persist unabated.
After speaking for 20 minutes, sucking the air out of the courtroom as attorneys for the sheriff, city and inmates listened in silence, McCampbell apologized for her “high level of frustration.”
“You’re not the only one who’s frustrated,” interjected U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the consent decree. “I can assure you of that.”
Asked to respond to McCampbell’s criticism, Gusman’s spokesman, Philip Stelly, provided a one-sentence statement that said, “The Sheriff’s Office is committed to moving forward and working with the monitors.”
McCampbell’s remarks provided a preview of a so-called compliance report to be published next month, a detailed breakdown of the sheriff’s efforts to ensure sweeping changes at the jail.
Africk approved the consent decree — signed by the Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of inmates who sued Gusman — last year after deeming the jail unconstitutionally oppressive.
Unlike the first monitor’s report, published in February, which carried an overtone of optimism and credited Gusman for taking early strides, the forthcoming assessment promises to be altogether unsparing.
“Our tentative summary,” McCampbell said Tuesday, “is that nothing has moved in regards to compliance.”
After a recent jail visit, she said, her team “substantially found that things hadn’t changed” since the end of last year. Indeed, nine months after the consent decree supposedly took effect, 95 percent of its provisions remain unfulfilled, she said.
Medical and mental health care appear to be headed in the wrong direction, having deteriorated in recent months, McCampbell said. Jailers and inmates alike remain imperiled by regular violence, she added, noting an incident this month in which a mentally disturbed inmate not even being housed on the jail’s psychiatric tier stabbed three deputies.
“The jail is not safe,” she stressed. “This isn’t a philosophical conversation about how to move forward. This is an in-your-face, happening, bad, everyday thing going on in the jail.”
The jail remains unsanitary and in desperate need of policy changes that remain unwritten, McCampbell said. Staffing has become so sparse, she said, that a member of her team had to wait “a considerable amount of time” to enter a particular cell area during a visit because there was no one around with a key.
McCampbell and Africk weren’t the only key players in the case to express dismay Tuesday.
Katie Schwartzmann, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney whose lawsuit resulted in the consent decree, said she was “incredibly discouraged by the lack of progress.”
“The sheriff has been called upon to fix the jail for years,” Schwartzmann said in a statement. “In that time, there have been countless stabbings, sexual assaults and mental-health crises. The violence in our jail spills over into our streets and touches thousands of members of our community. This is not theoretical, it is not hyperbole or academic — people have died in our jail.”
The monitor’s report comes as city and Sheriff’s Office officials have reached an impasse over how to pay for the jail reforms.
Citing a lack of funds and “competing” expenses from a separate court-ordered reform plan for the New Orleans Police Department, city leaders have vigorously opposed a recent proposal by Gusman to relocate the jail’s most severely mentally ill inmates to a state prison in St. Gabriel for up to three years.
Court-appointed experts have said the facility that now houses acutely mentally ill inmates, a building known as Templeman V, is a counterproductive setting due in part to poor sight lines that complicate inmate supervision. The sheriff has been told those inmates must be moved if his office hopes to comply with the consent decree’s mental-health provisions.
The sheriff wants to relocate those inmates to St. Gabriel as he seeks to build another permanent jail building that can accommodate their needs. The acutely mentally ill population fluctuates between one and two dozen inmates but is expected to grow after the jail adopts a new classification system.
The $145 million jail slated to open later this year wasn’t designed to house acutely mentally ill inmates. Attorneys for Mayor Mitch Landrieu have portrayed the St. Gabriel proposal as recklessly expensive, estimating it will cost $7.8 million for three years, including transportation and renovations costs. The parties are scheduled to attend a hearing Aug. 11 before Africk to explore whether Gusman has other funds available that could be spent on inmate mental health care.
McCampbell, meanwhile, gave short shrift Tuesday to a counterproposal made by city officials last week that acutely mentally ill inmates remain in Templeman V for the time being with additional deputies and mental health staff. She dismissed that idea as “unacceptable” and referred to Gusman’s proposal as “the only option provided.”
McCampbell said she found it “most disturbing” that city and Sheriff’s Office officials, unable to reach a short-term resolution on where to house severely mentally ill inmates, have placed Africk “in the position of solving a problem that the parties should have solved.”
Among Gusman’s most pressing needs is a “professional leadership and management team,” McCampbell said. “People need to be added who know how to run a jail.”
She said the sheriff also needs to build a human resources infrastructure so his office can begin hiring scores of new deputies needed to ensure a constitutional jail.
Schwartzmann, in her statement, said she still believes that reform is possible, but that it’s going to require more than merely signing of the consent decree. “We need to move that document into action,” she said. “We hoped to have seen progress a year into it, and we simply haven’t.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.