Former New Orleans Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson defeated long-time Sheriff Marlin Gusman in Saturday’s runoff election, making it the first time since the 1970s that an incumbent sheriff has been defeated in Orleans Parish.
Gusman has held the office since 2004.
Hutson will take over the long-troubled New Orleans jail that has been under a federal oversight due to violence, inadequate medical and mental health care, and in-custody deaths. Running on a progressive platform, she pledged to work with others in the criminal legal system to address the harms associated with mass incarceration, further reduce the jail population, and finally bring the jail into compliance with the conditions of the consent decree.
“I promised I would help those in custody, our neighbors in custody to be better.” Hutson said in a Saturday victory speech. “We will not harm them, we will not kill them, we will help our neighbors.”
Her victory also changes the shape — though possibly not the outcome — of a long-running debate over a new jail building meant to house detainees with acute mental illness that Gusman has been attempting to get built for years. Hutson, along with a number of reform groups and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, is opposed to the facility, and made it a key issue in her campaign. However, opposition to the facility faces a major obstacle even with Hutson in office next year. A federal judge, overseeing a long-running federal consent decree over the jail, has ordered the city to move forward with its construction. (The city is appealing that order.)
Hutson won with 53 percent of the vote to Gusman’s 47.
That follows the November primary, where Hutson narrowly forced Gusman into Saturday’s runoff election in November, receiving 35 percent of the vote to Gusman’s 48 percent, just shy of the 50 percent plus one he needed to win outright.
The head-to-head race between Gusman and Hutson grew increasingly heated after the primary. Hutson and her supporters said that Gusman has failed to live up to the terms of the eight-year-old consent decree and that his mismanagement has led to unnecessary deaths inside the jail. Gusman cast Hutson as a “radical” and a “puppet” of out of state interest groups who want to go soft on crime — while also claiming credit for significantly reducing the size of the jail during his tenure.
Gusman, a former New Orleans City Councilman, was first elected sheriff in 2004. While he has maintained a firm grip on the office for nearly two decades, his tenure has been the subject of ongoing criticism from civil rights lawyers, city officials, and the federal government over the conditions inside the jail and the treatment of people locked inside.
Just months after he took office, Hurricane Katrina formed in the Gulf of Mexico, prompting the city to issue a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans residents. But Gusman made the decision not to evacuate the jail, telling reporters that detainees and prisoners would “stay where they belong.” In the flooding that followed, people locked inside said they were left without food or water for days in flood water some described as being up to their neck. Guards abandoned their posts, and many detainees said they were maced and beaten.
Gusman attacked the credibility of the reports out of the jail after the storm, saying they were falsehoods being peddled by “crackheads, cowards, and criminals.” He said that the people locked in his jail had it no worse than others who were still in the city following the storm. But the accounts were enough to gain the attention of the United States Department of Justice, who began an investigation in 2008 into the conditions of the jail. Following several visits, the agency found that the conditions inside didn’t meet the minimum standards required by the constitution. In 2011, after they issued another letter, saying things hadn’t improved.
In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against the sheriff saying that he “demonstrates deliberate indifference to the basic rights of the people housed at OPP by implementing constitutionally deficient security, staffing, classification and mental health policies and practices,” and that his “inability or refusal to manage a facility of this size has become increasingly apparent in recent years, with violence and health crises steadily escalating within the facility.”
The lawsuit eventually led to the ongoing federal consent agreement between the Department of Justice, civil rights lawyers representing people incarcerated at the jail, the city of New Orleans, and the Sheriff’s Office, meant to bring the jail into compliance with the constitution. As part of the agreement, the jail is overseen by a team of federally appointed monitors, who issue periodic — and frequently critical — reports on the Sheriff’s Office’s progress.
The agreement also led to Gusman temporarily ceding full control of the jail to a “compliance director,” who had final authority over jail operations for several years.
In 2015, Gusman moved most of the detainees out of old Orleans Parish Prison facilities into the current jail building, called the Orleans Justice Center. He predicted that the new facility would usher in a new era of incarceration in New Orleans “where we’re not going to be just warehousing inmates, but we’re going to be concerned about public safety.”
But less than a year after the facility opened, the DOJ and lawyers for the plaintiffs filed a motion in federal court alleging that conditions in the jail remained dire, and that Gusman wasn’t making progress fast enough in complying with the consent decree.
“Unacceptably high levels of prisoner assaults, staff excessive use of force, and suicide and selfharm continue to pose grave risks of harm, even in the brand new direct supervision Orleans Justice Center (“OJC”), where most prisoners are now housed,” they wrote. They argued that Gusman was “incapable” of implementing the reforms necessary to come into compliance with the consent decree.
Gusman eventually agreed to have a compliance director take over the day-to-day operations of the jail. He took over again in November.
In 2016, 15-year-old Jaquin Thomas hung himself inside the facility. It took nearly an hour for anyone working at the jail to discover him, a lawsuit claimed. Weeks prior he had been assaulted inside the facility, and at one point prior to his death he was given “incorrect medication” which resulted in medical staff having to pump his stomach.
Gusman has regularly blamed the conditions of the jail on lack of funding, which he receives from the city, and has touted jail programming — such as a work-release, behavioral health, and an accredited high school within the jail walls. Last year he accused the monitors of attempting to create a “jail utopia” and said they only are finding the jail out of compliance because they want to hold on to their jobs.
Hutson, a Tulane Law graduate, returned to New Orleans in 2010 to become the city’s Independent Police Monitor. She has never held elected office, but during her campaign she fashioned herself as a progressive alternative to Gusman, and gained the support of New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams, who was elected last year on a platform promising to roll back the policies of mass incarceration and reduce the prosecution of low-level crimes associated with poverty and mental illness.
Hutson said she is in favor of scrapping the contract with the jail’s current private medical provider, Wellpath, and that she would make phone calls at the jail free for detainees. (Gusman, who received campaign contributions from the private call provider, Securus, said that the jail calls provide a much needed source of revenue for his office.)
While her opposition to the special needs facility — known as Phase III — was a major part of her campaign, it is unclear whether or not it will make any difference in whether or not it actually gets built. The city agreed to build the facility during Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, and a federal judge has ordered that they move forward with construction, despite opposition from Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The DOJ and lawyers representing people incarcerated at the facility have also come out in favor of the building, and the consent decree monitors have said it is necessary.
A spokesperson with the Gusman campaign was not able to be reached on Saturday.
A number of criminal justice reform groups cheered Hutson’s victory.
“Today marks a new chapter for Orleans Parish, which has been devastated by a mass incarceration crisis for decades,” said Chris Kaiser, ACLU of Louisiana advocacy director in a press release. “Orleans Parish voters sent a clear message in this election that they’re demanding bold reforms that advance racial equity and prioritize people over prisons.”