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Political and religious leaders voice support for Sheriff Gusman

31st May 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

As Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman last week fought to retain control of the city’s newly built, $145 million jail, political figures and religious leaders from around the city remained divided over whether or not the embattled leader should be removed from his spot at the helm. (As of The Louisiana Weekly’s Friday press time, that battle for control of the prison continued in court).

The United States Justice Department, along with prisoners’ attorneys, urged U.S. District Judge Lance Africk last month to appoint a federal receiver to take control of the Orleans Justice Center, which opened to prisoners last September.

The request, made in the form of a court filing to a class-action lawsuit about the lock-up’s conditions, cited “immediate risk of harm and death to the men, women and youth” being housed there.

Among other issues, it detailed widespread violence that included sexual assaults, denial of mental health services and suicide hazards, and said that there was actually “regression” away from some of the court-ordered mandates for reform, following a consent decree issued in 2013.

Last Wednesday, Africk began a hearing to determine whether or not to take what’s been called the “unprecedented” action of appointing an outside administrator.

As the drama played out in court, with national and local corrections experts testifying, a bevy of political and religious leaders threw their weight behind Gusman, urging the federal government to reconsider its request altogether.

Among them was U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who on Tuesday (May 24) wrote a stringent letter to Vanita Gupta, the deputy assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

Richmond, along with the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, opined that the proposal had racist undertones, given that Gusman is the first African American to serve as sheriff in the city’s 298-year history. Yet, he said, the sheriff is facing federal “usurpation” less than three years into the implementation of the consent decree, and only eight months after moving into the new facility.

“This unprecedented move has far-reaching implications and could unintentionally roll back some of the hard-fought civil rights and voting rights gains that have been achieved in Orleans Parish,” Richmond said.

He added that the DOJ’s route would be an expensive one, costing taxpayers “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in litigation expenses.

Erika McConduit-Diggs, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, agreed on both points. She also wrote a letter to the Justice Department, saying the appointment of a federal receiver could violate the intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Prior to the hearing, she asked that the Justice Department meet with the sheriff to come to a resolution – an offer that the U.S. government denied.

Then, the day before Wednesday’s hearing, another group came out in support of Gusman: a group of Black ministers, who held a news conference outside the new jail.

Among them was the Rev. C.S. Gordon of New Zion Baptist Church.

“Sheriff Gusman is making and has made significant strides toward full compliance with the consent decree,” Gordon said. “To take the jail away now would supersede the authority that the voters of New Orleans have placed in him by electing and re-electing him to carry out the task of this office.”

That press conference happened about two months after another group of religious leaders gathered in front of the jail, to express very different opinions about how Gusman had handled the move and the consent decree.

In March, members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and faith leaders complained that problems of “violence and destabilization” had continued inside the jail, citing numerous instances of attacks, manpower shortages and suicides.

“The culture of violence and neglect that has plagued OPP continues into the new jail,” said coalition member Norris Henderson. “Awaiting trial at Orleans Parish Prison is no less of a death sentence than it used to be.”

Gusman, too, embarked on a public relations campaign to assuage worries about the conditions at the new jail. The Justice Department, in the meantime, seemed unimpressed with the outpouring of letters, news conferences and petitions.

As the hearing continued in the courtroom last Wednesday and Thursday, attorneys for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center elicited testimony from federal monitors about what they said was utter lack of progress toward Africk’s demand for reform.

Susan McCampbell, a national corrections expert, told Africk last Wednesday that Gusman had made little progress in three years in improving the jail’s unconstitutional conditions, despite having a new facility and three years of federal supervision.

“They just have no clue,” McCampbell said about Gusman and his staff, according to several news reports.

Moreover, she said the sheriff had no plan in place with which to improve violent conditions at the jail, a problem that was highlighted last month when Cleveland Tumblin, a 61-year-old boxing instructor, died after hanging himself in a shower stall at the jail, locked from the inside.

Critics say Gusman was warned of the known suicide hazard months before the death but was unable or unwilling to correct them in a timely manner.

That suicide was brought up gain last Thursday, when psychiatrist and mental health expert Dr. Raymond F. Patterson testified that the new center lacks an appropriate number of suicide-resistant cells.

There were only two that he saw throughout the entire Orleans Justice Center, Patterson said, and none in the section that houses women. As of last Wednesday, he added, the jail had more than a dozen inmates, including two women, on suicide watch.

While on the stand, Patterson said the level of mental health care at the Orleans Justice Center was “abysmal.”

He pointed to the fact that jail staff climbed under the shower door when Tumblin hanged himself inside the locked stall, and took nine minutes to get to him. He still had a pulse when the nurse reached him, Tumblin said, adding that it’s possible his life could have been saved if the lock didn’t make him inaccessible to help.

“That is about as an objectively horrible an outcome as you can get,” Tumblin said. “The man died.”

One thing various parties did seem to agree on, however, is this: reforming a 1,400-bed jail in a state with the highest incarceration rate in the world is no “quick fix.”

“It certainly does cost money,” Patterson said about services needed for more comprehensive jail reform, including, among other things, suicide management prevention and more expedient counseling services.

The costly nature of constitutionally compliant jails is a point Gusman has stuck to when advocating for a third wing to house the sick and acutely mentally ill.

He’s also said he needs more money to give deputies better pay, as well as more time to prove that he can meet the requirements set out in the federal consent decree.

“Every jail in the United States strives to be as perfect as the lead monitor would like them to be. But the reality is no jail in the United States, including ours, can reach the utopian level of perfection discussed in court today in such little time,” Gusman said in a statement. “Individuals are placed in our custody who have violent histories and mental and physical health issues. We have to care for them in the safest way possible but without the funds to do so.”

This article originally published in the May 30, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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