Criminal Justice

Orleans Parish sheriff candidates spar over jail conditions, size and funding

In an evening that included more finger-pointing than policy proposals, the four candidates for Orleans Parish sheriff answered questions Thursday night concerning the size of the jail, how it’s funded, and how inmates are treated.

The two-hour panel, sponsored by the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, was held at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Treme. The church, which holds about 700 people, was mostly full, with the crowd engaged throughout.

Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas was on the attack, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and former sheriff Charles Foti were on the defensive, and lawn-care business owner Quentin Brown had the crowd chuckling and shaking their heads.

Thomas said unconstitutional conditions at the jail, which have resulted in a federal consent decree outlining reforms, was evidence that Gusman shouldn’t be re-elected.

“You need someone in office who understands how to comply with the U.S. Constitution,” he said.

In turn, Gusman contended to the packed pews that Foti left the jail in abysmal condition. Between Hurricane Katrina and the consent decree carried over from Foti, Gusman said, he has done an admirable job under adverse circumstances.

Gusman was the only person who said jail conditions aren’t unconstitutional.

“It’s indisputable,” Thomas said. “You all have seen the video,” which shows inmates drinking, shooting heroin and playing dice in the cells.

“This jail is unsafe even for staff to work in,” Thomas said. “It could be one of the most dangerous jails in the United States.”

Part of the problem, according to Gusman’s opponents, is that inmates aren’t properly classified, placing inmates jailed for minor offenses next to those accused of violent crimes.

“Gusman didn’t have a classification system until last year,” Foti said. “People are so afraid in there that they have to say they’re going to commit suicide in order to get into the psych ward.”

Gusman asserted that vulnerable inmates are not being abused. It just appears so, he said, because all allegations are investigated, even though many turn out to be unfounded.

“We do not have vulnerable people mixed in with predators,” Gusman said forcefully.

The number of inmates at OPP has been a contentious issue even before the campaign, and the candidates were asked several questions about what they would do to address this problem once in office.

Thomas said he supports capping the jail at 1,438 beds. Foti and Gusman said they would comply with any cap mandated by law.

All four candidates agreed that the jail should not be funded on a “per diem” formula, based on the number of inmates in jail each day. Instead, the jail should have a fixed annual budget.

Critics of the current system — including Gusman — contend that this method of funding creates incentives to lock people up. That funding system, however, is fixed by a decades-old consent decree.

Thomas and Brown accused Gusman and Foti of hiding information from the public, especially with respect to the prison budget.

“You deserve to have elected officials who understand that they’re accountable to the citizens of the city,” Thomas said to a smattering of applause from the audience.

Brown received the biggest laughs of the night when he spoke next. “My book’s open,” he said boisterously. “I ain’t got nothing to hide!”

If elected, Brown said, he would donate 25 percent of his salary to fighting crime and another 25 percent for raises to prison deputies.

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