Susan Hutson celebrates her victory over incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman on Dec. 11, 2021. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

When Susan Hutson was elected Orleans Parish Sheriff earlier this month, defeating 17-year incumbent Marlin Gusman, she defied several long-standing trends that seemed to predict defeat: No Black woman had ever been elected sheriff in Louisiana, and no one had managed to defeat an incumbent sheriff in New Orleans since the 70s. 

Then there was her platform. Rather than taking a traditional, tough-talking approach to the campaign — at a time when the public is particularly concerned about crime — Hutson ran on decreasing the local jail population.  

But now elected, Hutson faces perhaps even greater challenges than she did during the campaign. She will take over an office with an $80 million budget and nearly 700 employees, and a jail that has been under a federal consent decree for nearly a decade due to excessive violence, inadequate mental and medical care, and regular in-custody deaths. Gusman himself was sidelined from running the jail until recently because his administration was not meeting the terms of the consent decree quickly enough. He has argued that court-appointed monitors have placed unreasonable expectations on the facility. 

Hutson, however, has made her career in law enforcement oversight, and has promised to bring the jail into full compliance with the consent decree. In an interview with The Lens earlier this month, she said that she hopes to have “all the systems in place that will help us comply with it” within 12 months.

Hutson was the city’s Independent Police Monitor from 2010 until earlier this year, conducting oversight of the New Orleans Police Department, which was navigating its own consent decree. And she previously worked as an assistant inspector general overseeing the Los Angeles Police Department. Those experiences, Hutson says, have given her unique insight into the structural changes required to bring an agency like the Sheriff’s Office into compliance. 

“That’s what I do, right?” she said. “That’s what I do.”

Unlike city of New Orleans officials who were elected on the same day and will take office in January, Hutson won’t become sheriff — a parish, rather than city, office — until May, a period that could bring both challenges and opportunities.

Hutson said she plans to use the coming months to build out a transition team, meet with other criminal justice stakeholders, city officials, parties to the consent decree, and community members. 

But during those months while she still isn’t sheriff, there will continue to be developments related to two of Hutsons biggest campaign issues: the jail’s multimillion-dollar healthcare contract, which the city recently rebid, and the construction of an 89-bed medical and mental health facility known as Phase III. It remains to be seen whether Hutson will be part of the decision-making process on either during the extended transition period. 

It also remains to be seen how much cooperation she will get from outgoing Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s administration. During the final weeks, the campaign became increasingly bitter. Hutson said that Gusman did not call her on election night to concede, and had still not reached out to her directly. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Gusman said that “he is looking forward to a smooth transition,” but did not respond to more detailed questions about whether or not he had reached out to Hutson personally or the amount of access Hutson would be given to the jail and Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office staff during the transition period. 

“We’ll deal with them,” Hutson said. “You know, transition is huge. And they need to cooperate with us, and we need to cooperate with them. So we’re gonna bring that spirit of what’s good for our city.”

Gusman has announced that his Chief Administrative Officer Sean Bruno will be in charge of the transition. On Friday, Hutson’s campaign manager Deborah Chapman said that Hutson and Bruno met for a very brief meeting earlier this week. 

The immediate priority prior to taking office, Hutson said, is establishing a transition team. Hutson plans to recruit community members with expertise in key issue areas to provide guidance as she prepares to take over the jail.

“When we talked about community leadership during the campaign, I really meant that,” Hutson said. 

Phase III and  healthcare contract

As the process for selecting a healthcare provider and the legal and political struggle over Phase III play out, Hutson says she is working out how she can have a say in the proceedings — but it is unclear what exactly it will look like, or what kind of impact she will have.

The city, rather than the Sheriff’s Office, is in charge of building Phase III. Though Mayor LaToya Cantrell is opposed to the facility, her administration has been ordered to move forward with Phase III by the federal judge presiding over the consent decree. The city has appealed the order.  

Gusman has been an outspoken advocate for the facility, during his campaign, in private negotiations with city officials and in legal filings. But it is not clear if the judge or the other parties to the consent decree — including the U.S. Department of Justice and lawyers from the MacArthur Justice Center representing jail detainees, both of which have come out in favor of the building — will be moved by a new sheriff taking a different position. 

In 2017, the Sheriff’s Office along with the city — under then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration — agreed to build the facility, and the current court order is mandating that they fulfill that agreement. 

When the Cantrell administration later attempted to back out of that agreement in June 2020, the move was met with protests from Gusman, the DOJ and MacArthur. It is possible that any similar attempt by OPSO to back out of their prior agreement will be met with the same objections.

On the other hand, the facility is facing opposition from other local elected officials, not only Cantrell but the New Orleans City Council, as well as criminal justice reform organizations such as the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, the Vera Institute of Justice, and the ACLU of Louisiana. 

Sade Dumas, the executive director of OPPRC, said that establishing her opposition to Phase III should be Hutson’s “biggest priority.”

Hutson said she has yet to meet with lawyers for the DOJ or MacArthur to discuss Phase III or the consent decree, but is hoping that she can convince them that reforms implemented during her administration will render Phase III unnecessary. 

“They bought [the 2012 lawsuit that led to the consent decree] because people aren’t safe in the jail,” she said. “We’re gonna make them safe. For eight years, they dealt with this administration that couldn’t do it. They’re gonna find one now that will. We’re gonna do everything we can to make sure they get the proper medical and mental health care that they need, that our folks are trained appropriately, and that they are following the consent decree.”

But who exactly will be providing that proper medical and mental health care during Hutson’s administration is yet to be determined. 

During the campaign, Hutson promised to tear up the current healthcare contract with the jail’s private provider, Wellpath — the largest provider of jail and prison healthcare services in the country. Instead, Hutson said, she would prefer if a provider already operating in the New Orleans community took over the contract.

Earlier this year, the city opened up requests for proposals for the healthcare contract. It received only two — one from Wellpath, and another from the Louisiana State University-Health Sciences Center.  A decision on the contract  — which is ultimately made by Cantrell’s office — will likely be made before Hutson takes office. But she is hoping that given their alliance on Phase III, Cantrell’s administration will give her a spot on the purchasing selection committee. 

“You know, I’m not currently the sheriff. But I’d like to work with the city to be a part of that, because this is all about what we’ve said we want to do together — which is something different than Phase III,” Hutson said. “And that is very, very dependent on who gets this contract. So we’ve got to have somebody who will use that public health model that we talked about.”

“No decision has been made as to who is going to be a part of the selection committee for the jail’s healthcare contract,” said a spokesperson for the city in an email.

Chapman said on Friday that Hutson was scheduled to meet with Cantrell on Tuesday, Jan. 4. 

‘People in place who are your folks’

Hutson will face dueling challenges when it comes to personnel. On the one hand, she says that she wants to reassess the current employees of OPSO — both in terms of their commitment to her vision of the office and the jail, and whether they are in the right positions within the organization.

“One of the things I said during the campaign and I absolutely met was we have to reassess where everybody’s at,” she said. “Not just, ‘Do they belong working in the OPSO?’ but also, ‘Are they in the right job at OPSO?’ So because I heard a lot of people being out of place there. And so we’re going to reassess all that.”

At the same time, lack of staffing has become a persistent issue with the office. At a budget hearing in November, Bruno told City Council members that there are currently over 100 vacancies at OPSO. If she hopes to get the jail out from federal oversight, Hutson will likely have to find a way to both recruit and retain a significantly higher number of employees than Gusman has been able to in recent years.

In an October report, the federal monitoring team pointed to chronic understaffing as a major concern and a hindrance in coming into compliance with the consent judgement, noting that frequently “there are housing units and control rooms with no assigned staffing.” The lack of personnel has had a negative impact on everything from classifications of detainees to suicide watches. 

Hutson says that recruitment will be one of her top priorities when she takes office, and has promised to raise starting pay to $20 an hour —  money she believes she can find in the sheriff’s current budget. At the budget hearing in November, Bruno said that some OPSO employees still were making less than $15 an hour. 

Bruno also said at the hearing that the office lost many employees because of COVID and their inability to access childcare. But Hutson told The Lens that a cultural change brought about from her new administration may be a way to convince more people to come work for the office. 

“Many people quit because they just couldn’t deal with this. They couldn’t deal with the lack of safety, their lack of input, just not being supported,” she said. “So really, we’re going to prioritize giving them an opportunity to reapply. Because that just makes sense. They’ve been there, they work there. They know the lay of the land. And as long as there weren’t some type of issues there. We want to give people an opportunity to come back and be part of the solution.

While Hutson says that she hasn’t made any determinations yet about exactly what the process will be like for assessing current employees, or who may need to reapply, she said extra scrutiny will be 

“Leadership is the key to comply with these consent decrees. Leadership is the key to dealing with violence and dealing with making sure people get proper care,” she said. “The people who are closest to you have to be your people. You have to have people in place who are your folks. And so that’s kind of tough, but that’s definitely something that I will be doing. Bringing on people that are my my folks.”

Even if Hutson is able to change the culture of the office and come out from under federal oversight, some are pushing for her to establish some form of monitoring that will continue beyond the consent decree. 

Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola who has written extensively about jail and prison conditions and founded Incarceration Transparency that tracks in-custody deaths throughout the state, said that the most important thing Hutson could do was “commit to independent oversight that is community based.” 

“We have a federal consent decree. … But my question would be what happens after compliance?” she said.  “How do we ensure that compliance is sustained past the oversight that is provided by virtue of the consent decree and the federal court?”

Armstrong said that could take a number of forms. She said some jurisdictions have a community oversight board that a sheriff’s office is required to provide information and answer to. Those, she said, tend to focus on “systemic and ongoing harms.” Another option would be an independent “ombudsman” that would have authority to enter the jail and review complaints of those who are incarcerated inside, and would tend to focus more on individual level issues. 

“So the power of what they could do would depend in part on the type of structure,” Armstrong said, “but I think the broader issue is the fact that these are agencies that have very broad authority over the people in their care. And that authority impacts public safety outside the jail, but also the safety and security and health inside the jail. Having an independent check….helps both communities inside and outside.”

Hutson says she agrees, and that is “one of the things that’s on the table during transition for our community to talk about.”

“Everybody needs oversight,” she said. “Everybody needs oversight.”

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...