Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

Four candidates running for Orleans Parish sheriff in the fall election — including incumbent Marlin Gusman, who has held the office since 2004 — faced off at a virtual forum on Monday evening where they laid out their visions for the office, their experience, and how they would manage the historically troubled New Orlean jail. 

In addition to Gusman, Janet Hays, director of the mental health organization Healing Minds NOLA, former Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson, and former chief of police for Dillard University Christopher Williams, were the other candidates that took part in the forum, which was hosted by the advocacy group Justice and Beyond. Quentin Brown, the only other candidate for the office, did not appear at the forum.

The primary is scheduled for Oct. 9. If no single candidate wins a majority of voters outright, a runoff will be held on Nov. 13. 

While Gusman’s challengers made the case that it was time for a change of leadership, Gusman defended his career saying he has been a “progressive sheriff” ever since he took office in 2004, the year before the city’s jail — sprawling Orleans Parish Prison complex — was severely damaged in floods that followed Hurricane Katrina. Gusman faced intense criticism for his office’s response to the storm after inmates were left stranded for days in flooded jail buildings. But he claimed credit for later shutting down the old jail buildings and helping to secure federal funding to build a new jail.

Gusman also highlighted the jail’s transitional work program and the opening of the Travis Hill School, which detainees attend inside the jail to earn their GEDs. 

In addition, Gusman took credit for reducing the jail’s daily population from over 6,000 prior to Katrina to less than 800 as of this week — despite having once advocated for a much larger jail to replace OPP, and staunchly opposing a 1,438 bed cap for the new Orleans Justice Center, which was passed by the City Council in 2011. 

But the other candidates said the office was badly in need of reform.  Hutson cast herself in the same vein as District Attorney Jason Williams as well as candidates for local judgeships who ran on progressive platforms last fall.

“Our system is broken, it is broken,” Hutson said. “The community is saying we want change. Well, the sheriff is the third part of that. You have to have everyone rowing in the same direction, progressively. I am that progressive candidate.”

Hays touted her experience advocating for more robust mental health care in the city and state, while Williams said he wants to “transform the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office into a world-class law enforcement professional department.” 

The day-to-day operation of the jail, which has been under a federal consent decree since 2013, was only recently put back in Gusman’s control. In 2016 — after several critical reports from court-appointed monitors and complaints by the other parties to the consent decree regarding violence, understaffing, and inadequate health care at the facility — Gusman agreed to hand over day-to-day jail operations to an appointed compliance director. 

Last year, however, with the jail moving toward greater compliance with the consent decree, the keys were handed back to Gusman. 

Much of the conversation on Monday focused on the proposed Phase III building — a facility meant to house detainees with acute mental health need —  people the Orleans Justice Center, which opened in 2015, was not designed to accommodate.
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The city, under then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, agreed to build an 89-bed Phase III facility in 2017. But work was delayed on the building until 2019, when U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over the consent decree in federal court, ordered the city to move forward. The city began pre-construction work and was providing regular updates on its progress. But that stopped last year, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell has since been arguing since June 2020 that the building is no longer necessary or financially feasible given the declining jail population and the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January of this year, Africk again ordered the city to move forward, a decision the city has appealed.

Gusman has long been in favor of a Phase III building, and lawyers with his office are opposing the city’s efforts to back out of building it. On Monday, he reiterated his position that Phase III is necessary to provide adequate care for mental ill detainees who are brought into custody.

“The special needs building is needed,” Gusman said, referring to Phase III. “Everybody knows we need it. Those who don’t are just sticking their heads in the sand.

Susan Hutson has come out against the facility, and said that she supports retrofitting the OJC building, an option favored by local criminal justice reform groups as well as Cantrell and  members of the New Orleans City Council. At the forum, Hutson criticized Gusman for hiding behind the consent decree, and said she would work with Africk to come up with a solution. 

“The sheriff says, ‘Well, there’s an order,’” Hutson said. “Well, consent decrees … are court orders for change. And they are living, breathing documents, and they change over time. And you can work with the judge to change things. But you got to be willing to do that. And you got to be part of that change.”

In addition, Hutson said that she would push to end the city contract with the jail’s health care provider, Wellpath. 

Hays, on the other hand, said she doesn’t believe there is a need for Phase III or a retrofit. She said that she would seek to use FEMA money allocated for Phase III to build a forensic psychiatric hospital in New Orleans that would be “under the jurisdiction of psychiatrists who have the knowledge and ability to treat people, especially when they don’t want treatment.” Hays has also been critical of current civil commitment laws, which she says only allow for people to be mandated treatment when they commit crimes. 

“I disagree with Susan, that we need retrofit,” Hays said. “And the reason for that is that, you know, these are folks who have, again, been forced into the criminal justice system by our mental health laws that require dangerousness and grave disability before we can intervene to get treatment for them. When they meet those requirements, then we put them in jail.”

Williams said that while the city may be required to build the facility, he said he wanted to use a portion of the building as a job training facility for detainees. 

“I would take half of that Phase III and turn it into a training program so inmates would be able to get certification training in electrical, plumbing, computer-aided drafting, CDL licenses, so that they would be able to get a job once they leave the prison system,” Williams said.

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...