Susan Hutson (center) celebrates forcing a runoff with Marlin Gusman in the election for Orleans Parish Sheriff. November 13, 2021. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

For the first time since 2014, long-time Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will have to face a challenger in a runoff election in December in order to hold onto his job. 

Following Saturday’s primary election, Gusman will square off against former Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson, who has cast herself as the progressive alternative in the race and has promised to improve the conditions of the historically troubled jail for those locked inside, while working with other criminal justice stakeholders to reduce the number of people who are put there in the first place. 

Gusman led on Saturday, with 48 percent of the vote to Hutson’s 35 percent, but he needed more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff next month. The rest of the vote was distributed between three other challengers — Janet Hays, Christpher Williams, and Quentin Brown. 

“How dare we to dream that we can do something about this system that is punitive, discriminatory, and inequitable,” Hutson said in a speech to ecstatic supporters at her election party at Soule’ Cafe on Banks Street when a runoff was called by WWL-TV. “But we are gonna do just that.”

Gusman could not be reached for comment on Saturday night. 

A former New Orleans city councilman and chief administrative officer for former Mayor Marc Morial, Gusman was elected Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff in 2004 to oversee the sprawling Orleans Parish Prison, which at the time had a daily population of over 6,000 people incarcerated in its multiple buildings. Just 10 months into his tenure, Hurricane Katrina hit the city. (In 2010, the Civil and Criminal Sheriff’s Offices were merged, and Gusman became the first leader of the unified Sheriff’s Office.)

Gusman chose not to evacuate the jail in advance of Katrina, and people incarcerated when the storm hit and the federal levee system failed, flooding the city, described being abandoned there with flood waters rising to chest height, and left for days without food or water. Many were there for minor infractions like public drunkenness and disturbing the peace.

Gusman, at the time, disputed the claims, calling them the fabrications of “crackheads, cowards, and criminals.”

But stories from the jail during and after Katrina prompted the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation into the conditions at the jail in 2008, during which it found that the jail was violating the constitutional rights of people incarcerated at the facility — including evidence that officers frequently beat and abused detainees, failed to provide adequate mental health care, and that the facilities were infested with mice and cockroaches, among many other issues. 

In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit against Gusman, citing many of the same conditions found by the DOJ. That led to a consent judgment against the jail, which outlines standards the jail must meet and which a federal judge continues to oversee to this day. In 2016, when plaintiffs argued that progress was not being made to bring the jail up to constitutional standards, Gusman agreed to be sidelined from running the facility, and an Independent Compliance Director was instead put in charge of day-to-day operations at the jail. (Gusman regained full control of the jail in November of last year.)

Post-Katrina flooding also damaged a number of Orleans Parish Prison facilities, and led to a drawn out battle between Gusman, criminal justice reform advocates and some city officials over the ideal size of a new FEMA-funded jail. After pushing for a facility that would house over four thousand detainees, Gusman was eventually limited by a New Orleans City Council vote, reducing the size of the new jail dramatically to 1,438 beds.

But the jail Gusman eventually built, which opened in 2015, was not designed to accommodate detainees with serious mental illness. That was in keeping with the council ordinance allowing construction of the jail, which required that the new facility be built to house all classes of inmates except those with acute medical or mental health needs. To the dismay of reform advocates, Gusman planned to build another facility to accommodate them. 

That proposed building, known as Phase III, has been the subject of years of ongoing dispute, litigation, and shifting positions by the city’s mayoral administrations — and became a central issue in Saturday’s election. 

Due to an agreement reached in the consent decree litigation, the city, not the sheriff, is in charge of construction. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is against the building and temporarily halted work on it last year. But the federal judge overseeing the consent decree has ordered the city to move forward with the construction of Phase III.

All of Gusman’s challengers — including Hutson — have come out against Phase III.  

Hutson, an attorney and Tulane Law School graduate, came to New Orleans to head the Office of the Independent Police Monitor in 2010 after a four-year stint helping to monitor the Los Angeles Police Department’s consent decree. 

In taking on Gusman, Hutson has cast herself as a “progressive sheriff” in the mode of a number “progressive prosecutors” who have been elected across the country vowing to dismantle mass incarceration — including Jason Williams here in New Orleans. 

She has promised, among other things, to make phone calls free for people incarcerated in the jail, end the contract with the jails current medical service provider, Wellpath, and require more robust de-escalation training for deputies working at the jail. 

She has also talked about wanting to work with other criminal justice stakeholders in working to reduce the number of people in the jail in the first place.

“If 80 percent of the people in the jail have a mental health or substance abuse diagnosis, why aren’t we trying work with the courts to sentencing people to going to get treatment?” Hutson said in an interview with The Lens on Saturday. “Why aren’t we trying to help them do that? I think if we are able to collect and share information better, we’ll be able to treat people’s needs.”

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...