From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Last month, criminal justice advocates, lawyers, and a former New Orleans City Councilwoman gathered on the steps of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street for a press conference in support of candidate for Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson, and with the purpose of “debunking Sheriff Gusman’s attempts to steal credit for reform victories.” 

Among their frustrations was that Gusman has been taking credit for cutting the jail population down to a fraction of the size that it was when he took over the office in 2004. At the time the jail — then called Orleans Parish Prison — had the capacity to hold over 7,000 people in a sprawling compound of buildings. Now, nearly seventeen years later, fewer than 900 people are incarcerated in the city — the vast majority in a single facility. 

During his campaign for reelection, Gusman has been reminding the public that the downsize occurred on his watch. But his critics argue that it happened in spite of Gusman — not because of him. 

The tension is not new. Over the last decade, during which a new jail was built and old facilities decommissioned, Gusman has presented himself publicly as amenable to efforts to reduce the jail population, while repeatedly pushing for a larger jail than advocates and other city officials believe necessary. 

His stance has frustrated some criminal justice reform advocates, who have come to see him as a product of an earlier, tough-on-crime era, intent on expanding the power and influence of the Sheriff’s Office and implicitly opposing reforms aimed at reducing the jail population. In pushing for larger and more facilities, they say he has repeatedly misled the public and other elected leaders, and is out of step with a broader progressive trend in the city’s criminal legal system.

“The sheriff paints himself as a reformer, but nothing could be further from the truth,” said former City Councilwoman Susan Guidry at the November press conference. “I know this first hand as chair of the City Council Criminal Justice Committee for eight years.”

For his part, Gusman says that he has reformed the jail, now called the Orleans Justice Center, beyond recognition since he became Sheriff.

“I reduced our population of incarcerated persons from nearly 6,300 to under 900 by ending the agreement to house state prisoners in our overcrowded, underfunded detention centers,” Gusman said in a written statement to The Lens. Gusman said he rid the jail of 13 derelict buildings and replaced them with the new Orleans Justice Center, “a state-of-the-art, direct supervision detention center with an accredited high school built into it and have partnered with dozens of local organizations to reduce recidivism and give our inmates a good chance at success when they’re released. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. OJC is lightyears ahead of OPP. The people attacking me don’t even know the difference between the two.”

The dramatic decrease in the number of people being held in the New Orleans jail has not been the product of a single reform, but the result of a number of changes implemented by the various criminal justice actors and the city government, with varying degrees of participation or buy-in from the Sheriff’s Office.

The New Orleans Police Department has been making fewer low-level arrests. The City Council has mandated that certain crimes be treated as municipal offenses — which can be handled with a court summons instead of an arrest — rather than state crimes. And a pretrial services program was implemented to help reduce the number of people being held in the jail only because they can’t afford to pay bail. 

But a debate over the size of the jail facility began more than a decade ago, when the jail was still holding over three thousand people and was seen as a proxy for competing visions of the criminal legal system as a whole.

“By changing the size and scope of our facility, we can begin to change the nature of our criminal justice system,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin told the New Orleans City Council in 2011 as it voted to authorize construction of what would later be known as the Orleans Justice Center. “We can move away from Band-Aid responses and towards preventative and sustainable solutions.” 

Advocates and others involved in the debate say that Gusman was uninterested in reforms that would reduce the jail population. Instead, he was hoping to reestablish the sort of empire that his predecessor, Charles Foti, had built over his decades as Sheriff. 

Foti expanded OPP from a single facility when he was elected in 1974 to the sprawling complex that Gusman inherited thirty years later. He aggressively pursued state and federal contracts to hold prisoners and detainees from outside of New Orleans, encouraged law enforcement to make more arrests, and deployed detainees throughout the city to help with events and public works.

Former Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, a frequent critic of the sheriff, told The Lens last week that legacy was likely on Gusman’s mind when he took over in 2004. 

“His thought process had to be around the notion that this is what sheriffs do,” Johnson said. “Therefore, this is what I’m going to do. Yes, I think his whole mentality then would have been around the idea that I’m not going to replicate Foti, but I’m gonna come close.”

‘All they want to do is figure out how they can build it the smallest possible’

Tensions between Gusman, the city, and reform groups over the appropriate size of the jail began to develop in 2010, as plans for a new jail for the city were taking shape. 

The jail had experienced significant damage in citywide flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, and its remaining bed count was a bit more than 3,500, well below its peak pre-Katrina capacity. The city and the Sheriff’s Office had access to tens of millions of dollars in Katrina-related funding to replace Orleans Parish Prison with a modern jail. 

Gusman was pushing forward with a plan for a new jail complex that would consist of new buildings and remodeled older ones that would have expanded the overall capacity. The bed count was disputed. Gusman claimed he was aiming for 4,300 beds, but critics of his administration said a plan he submitted to the City Planning Commission would leave him with closer to 5,800. Reform groups were hoping for a far smaller jail.

(In 2007, Gusman had passed along portions of a plan produced by FEMA to architects that suggested an 8,000 bed facility would be necessary to accommodate the jail population by 2020, in order to prepare them for what the jail construction process would look like.) 

To resolve the issue, Mayor Mitch Landrieu convened a “Criminal Justice Working Group” made up of nearly two dozen people involved in the criminal legal system that he tasked with studying reforms that could reduce the jail population and estimate the appropriate size of the jail. 

Gusman was a member of the group, and during meetings he signaled that despite his earlier push for a larger jail, he would support whatever the group recommended. He bristled at suggestions that he favored a larger jail for financial and political reasons.

Dr. James Austin, a corrections expert hired by the Landrieu administration to perform long-term jail population projections, told the group that without any changes to policy, the city would need a jail big enough to accommodate more than 3,000 people by 2020. With a pretrial services program, fewer arrests for nonviolent crimes and a decrease in the number of convicted state prisoners being held at the jail — which is primarily used for pretrial detainees  — that number could get down to a little over 2,000. Reform groups said more aggressive policy changes could push that number to between 1,400 and 1,500.

Ultimately, the working group, which included Gusman, settled on a resolution that included a goal of 1,485. 

Shortly after, at a forum, Gusman said he thought the jail would need to be at least twice that size.

“There ought to be another 1,800 beds so we can get to be about 3,200,” Gusman said. “But working with this committee, all they want to do is figure out how they can build it the smallest possible.” National media took notice of the dispute. 

When it adopted the jail size resolution in November 2010, the working group also urged the City Council to authorize the construction of a new jail facility with 1,438 beds, nearly 50 less than the optimum 2020 bed count the working group agreed on.

The working group, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, acknowledged that there were certain unresolved issues with the proposed jail, including how to house detainees with acute mental health issues and whether a separate facility should be built for those detainees on a lot next to the new jail site.  

In 2011, the council ultimately passed an ordinance allowing Gusman to build the 1,438 bed facility, under the condition that he tear down all the other old Orleans Parish Prison buildings that were being used once it was completed. Gusman did not attend the meeting, but Kopplin said that he had come around to supporting it. It required that the jail be sufficient to accommodate “any type of prisoner under any jurisdiction,” with an exception: “inmates that require acute mental health treatment.” 

Neither Gusman nor city hall at the time considered that the final say on the ultimate size of the jail. And just months after the city council passed the 1,438 resolution, The Lens obtained correspondence between Gusman and Kopplin discussing another 600-bed facility that would sit in the vacant lot between the new jail and the Sheriff’s Office’s kitchen-warehouse facility, which was under construction. (At the same time, Gusman was refusing to answer questions about the mysterious empty lot, at one point saying it would be nice to have “a little green space” there.)

The proposal went well beyond a space for mental health care. While it would have some beds dedicated for mental health care, the majority would be in general population dorms. The proposal frustrated Guidry — who chaired the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee — and other advocates who said they felt the 1,438 bed cap ordinance the council passed was a hard ceiling on numbers of beds. They also said the sheriff and others had pledged at a meeting not to build a jail that could accommodate more than 1,438 detainees. 

Landrieu’s jail working group also continued to meet in order to come to a final determination on the correct size of the jail. But they said they couldn’t finish their work until a pretrial services program was up and running. According to Guidry, Gusman was holding it up by not allowing necessary interviews to take place inside the jail.

Guidry, recounting the delay, told The Lens on Monday that Gusman only finally agreed to begin the pretrial services program when he became convinced he could take credit for the reform, which she said he did at a press conference. 

“He held it at the jail — the press conference — and he was the speaker, he was presenting pretrial services,” Guidry said. “And we let him do it because, you know, it got us there.”

Amid those disputes, Gusman did take a step that was cheered on by some of his adversaries: closing down the notorious House of Detention building, which was housing hundreds of state prisoners as well as the jail’s former psychiatric tier.

The move to close the building closely followed two major developments. Weeks earlier, the U.S. Marshals Service had removed federal prisoners and detainees from the facility, citing poor conditions.

And just days before the closure, civil rights lawyer Katie Schwartzmann filed a class-action suit against the Sheriff’s Office, alleging that the conditions at the jail — violence, poor supervision of vulnerable detainees and substandard medical and mental health care — had deteriorated to the point that they violated detainees’ constitutional rights. 

The U.S. Department of Justice eventually joined the suit as a plaintiff, and it resulted in a landmark settlement: a federal consent decree outlining how the Sheriff’s Office would improve the jail, along with court-appointed monitors reporting to a federal jail. The consent decree was approved the following year. It remains in effect today. 

Phase III

The issue of housing for people with acute mental health needs — unresolved by the time the 2011 jail vote took place — faded into the background as the consent decree was negotiated in 2012 and 2013. Then in May 2013, as hearings that would lead to its approval were about to be under way, lawyers representing the plaintiffs’ class of jail detainees informed the judge that the new jail, by then under construction, was not designed with appropriate space and facilities to accommodate people with serious mental health issues

Following the closure of the House of Detention, Gusman moved the psychiatric unit to another building: Templeman V. But federal consent decree monitors and federal Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over the agreement, found the building — which was covered in mold and filth — unsuitable. And in 2014, Africk approved a plan devised by Gusman to send detainees with acute and sub-acute mental health needs to a state prison, over objections from the Landrieu administration, which would have to use city funds to pay for the state care. 

That wouldn’t be the only time during his tenure that Gusman sent local detainees out of parish. The following year, Gusman would also begin sending local detainees — without acute needs — to other facilities around the state. As the new jail was about to open in 2015, Gusman, citing a lack of space in the 1,438-bed facility, began sending pretrial detainees to parish jails hours away in north Louisiana, even as he kept several hundred state reentry prisoners in New Orleans. 

In a statement to The Lens, Gusman said that because the jail population was larger than the facility could fit when it opened, it forced him to house them in a temporary facility  — which he described as “basically a system of tents that had been there since Katrina.” He called it a public safety risk. Local detainees have since been returned to the New Orleans jail. 

The use of a state prison as a psychiatric ward was always intended as a temporary fix. But Gusman and Landrieu had trouble reaching a firm agreement on a permanent one. 

Landrieu, who had been in talks with Gusman regarding the 600-bed proposal for a second jail building and publicly supported a Phase III building in 2013, changed course and opposed the facility for a time in favor of a retrofit of the current jail. During the construction of the current jail, Landrieu issued a stop work order on the facility, arguing that Gusman wasn’t building it to accomodate all types of detainees. In 2017, Landrieu would agree to a smaller, 89-bed version of Phase III — which remains the current proposal.

The Orleans Justice Center opened in September 2015 without design modifications to accommodate detainees with severe mental illness.

Later, the state announced it would stop accepting Orleans Parish detainees with acute mental health needs. That made the issue of local care for those detainees all the more urgent, leading to an ongoing dispute between Gusman and Landrieu’s successor, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who opposes Phase III. 

In early 2019, Africk ordered the Cantrell administration to renovate a temporary unit for detainees with acute needs and begin work on the permanent building: Phase III. The project was in the design phase when, in mid-2020, the Cantrell administration abruptly ceased work on the building, arguing that it was too expensive and unnecessary.

Early this year, following a series of hearings on the dispute, Africk ordered Cantrell to honor Landrieu’s 2017 agreement. The city is appealing that order. 

Guidry told The Lens she still believes that OJC was illegally built with the intention of necessitating another building. She says that Gusman has now clung to the language in the 1,438 ordinance that excluded detainees with acute and sub-acute mental illness as a reason to build a new facility. She says that at the time, they left out that population because they felt they should be treated in a hospital — not a jail. 

“It was never the intention that the reason a Phase III building would be built was for to house mentally ill inmates,” Guidry said. “He’s made that up. He took that language out of the ordinance and he’s twisted it.”

The current iteration of Phase III would have 89-beds for detainees with acute and sub-acute mental illness and a medical infirmary. Gusman — along with the U.S. Department of Justice, lawyers for detainees and federal monitors overseeing the jail’s consent decree — have argued that the facility is necessary to provide adequate care for people incarcerated in New Orleans. 

He has repeatedly pushed back against the characterization of the new facility as a “jail expansion.”

Along with Cantrell, members of the New Orleans City Council have also come out against the building. Hutson, his opponent on Saturday, has made her opposition to the building a key part of her platform. 

“If we had listened to the Sheriff, instead of the community and City Councilmember Susan Guidry, right now we would have a 6000 bed facility to house around 900 people in custody,” Hutson said in a statement. “But, instead of that wasteful spending, we have a jail facility that will house the current population. There is no need to build another facility.”

Nick 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...