Deputies working inside the Orleans Parish Prison are seeing their hours slashed

In an effort to trim costs, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman instituted a new scheduling plan for deputies and staff at Orleans Parish Prison earlier this month.

The schedule, which was reflected in prison employees’ paychecks for this first time last week, means fewer overtime hours for deputies, whose starting pay for working in the Orleans Parish Prison is less than $10 an hour.

“The schedule standardizes deputy shifts, creating more predictable off-days and decreasing overtime,” said Gusman in a statement issued through the Ehrhardt Group public-relations company.

Gusman said the new model is similar to those in place at the Louisiana State Police and law-enforcement agencies nationwide.

Gusman added that since he closed the House of Detention earlier this month, he’s had to “operate a smaller jail facility with even fewer financial resources.”

Until recently, Gusman had been housing state and federal prisoners at jail buildings in the Orleans Parish Prison complex, earning a daily fee for each inmate. But in recent weeks, all most state and all federal inmates were transferred out of the parish jail, owing to what authorities said were unacceptable and even unconstitutional conditions. Correction: Not necessarily all state inmates were moved out of the Orleans Parish Prison.

The total daily jail population hovers around 2,600, Gusman said, substantially fewer than the 7,520 inmates being held at Orleans Parish Prison before Hurricane Katrina. The total number of available jail beds is 2,691

“We’re at a tipping point,” said Gusman of the teeming jail population during a recent pretrial detention symposium at Tulane University. “I don’t make decisions about who stays in jail and who doesn’t,” he said, “but jail beds are finite.”

Gusman has also had to address security-lapse issues that led to four inmate escapes in recent weeks.

Three escapees were able to break out of FEMA-funded temporary jails in the prison campus, while another escaped from a work detail in City Park.  All were recaptured, but not before questions were raised about security and staffing levels in and out of the Orleans Parish jails.

Understaffed jail facilities at Orleans Parish Prison also have animated recent lawsuits and critical reports from, respectively, the Southern Poverty Law Center and U.S. Department of Justice.

The Lens has received anonymous phone calls and other communications from sheriff’s deputies in recent weeks decrying the new schedule and warning of security repercussions and possible sick-outs. But Gusman said nothing has materialized.

“Excused absences on May 24 and 25 remain within the average of a normal day,” Gusman said.

Gusman slashed deputies’ hours but also claimed the new scheduling system would improve the deputy-to-inmate ratio. “There are fewer buildings housing inmates,” he said, which allowed him to consolidate the deputies in the active buildings even as he is cutting their hours.

“We are adjusting to these changes,” Gusman said, “and we are doing it while maintaining the same number of deputies.”

Gusman did not provide further details on the new scheduling system, other than to say it’s like the state police setup.

A state police official contacted by The Lens said troopers typically work seven days over a two-week period. They work a staggered 12-hour-shift schedule that puts them on duty for three days, followed by two days off, followed by two days on, and then three days off.

Gusman wouldn’t say whether he’d be reducing staff as the sprawling complex of jail and administrative buildings at Orleans Parish Prison is pared down to the new jail and the new kitchen/warehouse facility under construction along Perdido Street.

“I don’t anticipate staffing changes now,” Gusman said last month as the last of the state prisoners were bused from the House of Detention to state correctional facilities, “but there may be more in the future.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...