Viewpoint: Sheriff Marlin Gusman on the special needs facility, compliance order and his tenure as sheriff

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Danae Columbus

Sheriff Marlin Gusman prepares to complete the paperwork to run for re-election.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman spoke with the Uptown Messenger about the changes that have occurred in his office and in the criminal justice system during his more than 15 years as sheriff as well as the challenges ahead.

Gusman is currently a candidate for re-election and has four challengers: Quentin Brown Jr., Janet Hayes, Susan Hutson and Christopher Williams.

Danae Columbus: Tell us about your background. Where you were born, educated, degrees or certifications you may have received.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman: I am a native of New Orleans, born on the West Bank and married a 7th Ward girl who continues to this day to be my best partner and friend. Renee and I have been married for 43 years, raised our family in Gentilly, where we continue to live. We have two children and five grandchildren.

I am a graduate of Jesuit High School; I earned a bachelor of sciences and a bachelor of arts from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, and a Juris Doctor from Loyola University (admitted to the Louisiana State Bar in 1984). I’m also a graduate of the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a graduate of the National Sheriffs Institute.

What work did you do before becoming sheriff?

I represented District D on the City Council from 2000 to 2004. I was also the chief administrative officer under Mayor Marc H. Morial; director of property management under the late Mayor Ernest N. Morial; and executive director of the city’s Office of Small and Minority Business Development.

I also worked as a staff attorney with the Civil Sheriff’s Office and a public defender. I had a private law practice in civil and criminal law, and was president of the Regional Loan Corp.

What made you decide to enter public service?

I was fortunate to be raised by parents who instilled in me strong values, including applying my blessings in life to help others. 

Who were your role models growing up that helped shape your life?

My parents, Ted and Helen Gusman, and Dutch Morial.

For the first time in eight years, you have a race with vocal opponents. Why do you think this is happening now?

First of all, this is an elective office, so anyone has the right to challenge me. That is part of our democratic process. As to why I have several opponents this cycle, I think it reflects the change in the city’s makeup. We have a lot of new voters in our community, people who are younger and moved here after the 2005 disasters. We also have some who have been moved by the crises our nation has faced in the past few years to confront systematic racism and the injustices in law enforcement and criminal justice. I appreciate their passion and I share it.

Does ‘flipping the sheriff” mean some see you as not progressive? 

Unfortunately, there are those who think the sheriff has the ability to let people out of jail. They don’t understand that those who are incarcerated are first arrested by the police and then remanded to the jail by a judge and cannot be released without the order of a judge. The criminal side of this job is about housing these men and women humanely and safely, and also providing the services that will help them re-enter society when they are released to hopefully never return to OJC. Additionally, as sheriff, I have a responsibility to the victims of violent offenses, who need help as well dealing with the impact on their lives. No one wants to talk about the fact that a community needs a jail. My job is to make sure it is run constitutionally, safely, efficiently and improves outcomes for our community. However, I also have many civil duties to perform such as providing security to the courts, holding property sales, serving subpoenas and other court orders.  This job is multi-faceted and most overlook its depth and breadth.

You were first elected in 2004. In eight months, you were hit with Hurricane Katrina and having to completely restructure the city’s prison system. 

In 2004 the Orleans Parish Prison consisted of 13 different, dilapidated buildings that housed more than 6,600 prisoners, mostly state and federal inmates. We’ve reduced the size of our jail’s population by 85 percent and have opened a completely new, modern facility.

Charges against you include that you don’t give sanitary napkins to women prisoners, that you tape phone calls between attorneys and inmates, that you don’t provide educational opportunities or good health care to inmates.  

Those allegations are simply not true. The facts are that we don’t record privileged attorney-client phone calls and we have a system set up to protect the privacy of those calls. We absolutely provide hygiene products to all in our custody and certainly to women. We have an accredited high school, the Travis Hill School, inside of the OJC, which awards state high school diplomas, in addition to job skills training, re-entry programs and behavioral health services. And our medical services provide screening and medical evaluation, in addition to appropriate medical services, to everyone held at OJC. 

Political action committees are being used as a cover to spend large amounts of anonymous money and bypass the restrictions placed on what candidates can raise and spend under the law.  We’ve seen across the country how some of these anonymous dark money outfits spread destructive misinformation. But one thing I hope the voters in New Orleans appreciate is that I have never hid from my performance as their sheriff. I am transparent, and when we’ve made mistakes, I’ve owned them because I am the sheriff.

Let’s talk about the special needs facility. It has attracted opposition from groups such as Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.

How can anyone not support building a facility that would house and treat with dignity in a clinical setting acute mentally ill persons ordered held by a judge on criminal charges? These groups fail to answer that.

We need a dedicated, 89-bed facility to house the acute mentally ill and other special needs inmates. Our program will attempt to move those who can out of the medical facility within 90-days if possible. But these are not inmates who just have a mental illness. Remember, these are individuals who were remanded to jail and often determined by a judge to be violent due to their mental illness. They also have a right to a constitutional facility to appropriately house and care for them with dignity and respect while they are detained.

Why do you think the city administration opposed the special needs facility?

The special needs facility was actually negotiated and agreed to by the Mayor’s Office, with the consent of the City Council, under a prior administration. Then, we have a change of administrations at City Hall and it’s re-examined. But the federal courts have consistently upheld the intent of the 2013 Consent Decree that a jail must be properly funded and meet the needs of the community. The special needs facility will also house a medical infirmary, a visitation center for attorneys and families, and a laundry. The mental health facility basically meets the needs once served by Charity Hospital, where the third floor was a unit dedicated to securely housing the acute mentally ill. But the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is that Gov. Bobby Jindal decided that no state hospital will again provide that type of service. The University Medical Center is a private nonprofit enterprise.

Why did you agree to a consent decree in the first place in 2013?

Finding a solution to the funding issues of the jail was my biggest goal. The reality is New Orleans has historically underfunded the jail and has always had problems funding it. So, after Katrina, the 2013 consent decree mandated that the city must finally meet its statutory responsibility and properly fund a jail that meets constitutional standards. The FEMA money we negotiated for was a solution to replace the aging, dilapidated buildings. Unlike other parish sheriffs, I am not the parish tax collector. The budget to run this facility is $70 million a year, and no one wants to pay it. Everyone agrees we need a jail, but no one wants to actually invest the proper funding. And remember, we must not only house inmates according to all constitutional mandates, but we have to have the dollars for the appropriate personnel, the support services like healthcare, food and laundry. A jail is a 24/7 enterprise, not closed on holidays or disasters. Today, we are 98% compliant, either substantially or partially, with the provisions of the consent decree. But let me point out one thing: the city also wants to help the Municipal and Traffic Court build a new facility. Notice that project still sits there, unfunded. 

What is the difference between the consent decree and the compliance order? Are they the same thing?

They are both centered on required funding from the city and both agreements enabled OPSO to obtain a stable funding source. The compliance agreement has been terminated. We are 97% in compliance either, substantial or partial, with the consent judgment.

Some say you have not really been in charge of the jail due to the compliance order. Is that a fair accusation?    

I selected the compliance director and under the terms of the agreement, we worked together to improve compliance, of all parties, including city government. 

You have a background in finance and in property management. How has this helped you as a criminal sheriff?

Today, the Orleans Justice Center is fiscally sound. I got the approval of the voters to spend funds in the dedicated mileage that aren’t needed for capital debt service for operating expenses. We have gained, through the actions I’ve taken as sheriff, the ability to have a budgetary commitment from City Hall that cannot falter. The budget is approximately $70 million a year to operate this facility. I’ve doubled entry-level pay for staff to attract and retain a committed workforce. We have a modern, clean and efficient facility, and I take pride in what we have accomplished and how far we’ve come. It took a lot of hard work with FEMA to accomplish this goal.

In 2010, the civil and criminal sheriff were merged by the legislature into one office and you were elected as the sole sheriff in Orleans Parish. Do you think the public understands that the job is about more than just the jail?

It is not mentioned in the discussions. The civil division provides essential executive and support services to an entire judicial district with a dozen judges and tens of thousands of annual filings. They are focused on doing something this job isn’t even allowed to do, i.e., release prisoners without cause or a legal court order.

What do you think are your top three accomplishments?

  1. Building a new, safer, more secure facility that operates on a direct-supervision, behavior-based model with a stable source of funding
  2. Instituting a high school in the jail so inmates can get their Louisiana high school diploma and other partnerships to promote self-improvement and rehabilitation
  3. Successfully merging two offices into one, according to state mandate, in 2010

What are your top three projects going forward?

  1. Building the special needs facility and successfully linking all areas of the Orleans Justice Center
  2. Expanding programming for inmates and continued and improved staff training at all levels
  3. Moving beyond the consent decree 

If you could tell the voters one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I am honored to be their Sheriff and I take a great pride in what we have accomplished together. The ultimate goal of the criminal justice system is to promote recovery, support re-entry and reduce recidivism with appropriate programming and engagement. A stable jail environment is an important part of this. Orleans Justice Center leadership has improved conditions for both inmates and deputies. Incidents of violence are down, reported quicker and handled more effectively. Safety is our top priority both within the Justice Center and across the New Orleans community. From Katrina to prisoners in tents, to building a jail under multiple challenges, to consolidating two separate elective offices into one in 2010, this city has made positive changes happen. We now have a safe, secure, well-monitored and fiscally responsible jail and Sheriff’s Office to serve our community’s civil and criminal justice needs. Not a day goes by I don’t thank this community for welcoming change, improvement and praying for our continued success in reducing violence.

Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at swampednola@gmail.com.

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