Sometime after the Iran-Iraq broke out in 1980, Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying: “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.”
These words seem appropriate following the results of the Orleans Sheriff’s election day this past Saturday. Incumbent Marlin Gusman received 49% of the vote, falling just short of the amount required to avoid a runoff. The runner up with 29% of the vote, Charles Foti, is also Gusman’s predecessor. Each of these men have made their own contributions to a Sheriff’s office that is beyond dysfunctional.
Take an incident that occurred last month, when an Orleans Parish Prison inmate arrived in Criminal District Court acting a bit quirky. Willis Turner could not stand, and a bailiff had to lift him up.
A medical condition perhaps? No. Turner was, to use modern vernacular, “totally tripping balls.” Drug testing revealed that he was under the influence of opiates.
Judge Frank Marullo was not amused. “This is the third time that I have had this defendant here, and he can’t even walk,” Marullo lectured. Later, the exasperated judge wondered aloud how in the heck the Sheriff’s Department got Turner to the courtroom given his state.
Of course, none of this should have come as a shock to the electorate. Last April, a video was released during hearings on the federal consent decree that showed OPP inmates drinking, using drugs and even flashing a pistol – all from the confines of their cells.
Given Judge Marullo’s experience with the drug-addled Mr. Turner, it does not appear much has changed. OPP’s chronic mistreatment of inmates belies a complete lack of security, placing everyone at risk. And of course, all of this came to light as Gusman was staring down reelection. The incident probably cost Gusman the additional votes he needed avoid a runoff.
For his part, Foti has argued that his prior experience as Sheriff renders him qualified to reform OPP “I fixed the problems once before, and I can come back and fix them again.” Gusman accurately retorts that Foti fixed nothing – that he left a gargantuan “prison-industrial complex” with nearly three times as many inmates as now. Gusman also meekly emphasizes that he is still working to reform the jail.
Both candidates are right, which is to say that neither are particularly good candidates. Foti is correct that the problems with the jail are inexcusable, while Gusman is correct in pointing out that Foti didn’t fare better when he was at the helm. Foti’s reign as Sheriff was notorious for illegal strip searches, with chronic grumblings about inmate abuse and inmate neglect.
Perhaps Foti managed to keep prisoners from using drugs, but he has his own skeletons, particularly relative to his most recent tenure as State Attorney General. To use another tired metaphor, Foti is throwing a lot of stones in his glass house.
Nevertheless, if Gusman has improved anything, it’s not exactly obvious. The federal consent decree is a testament to that. Gusman is quick to point out that he is in the process of building a new facility for OPP, but it’s unclear that a new building is going to change matters. The quality of the facilities certainly makes a difference, but it won’t solve the underlying problems any more than buying new golf clubs will cure your slice.
Of course, OPP is chronically underfunded. It might be that no sheriff could run a proper jail with the budget the city provides, which is less than half per inmate than state prisons. I’ve often said that we’re trying to run a major urban prison on a rural parish jail’s budget.
Irrespectively, the reality is that the city is unlikely to provide more funding to OPP beyond that which is required by the consent decree. The budget is tight and the welfare of OPP inmates doesn’t rank high on the priority list of New Orleans taxpayers.
Accordingly, we need a Sheriff who can meet minimum standards on a minimal budget. I, for one, do not believe either Foti or Gusman fit the bill.
Alas, in the runoff, they can’t both lose.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.