Shortly after taking office in early May, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson posted two memos near the entrance to the New Orleans jail addressed to her new staff members. 

One notifies employees and contractors that they will no longer be able to bring bags or personal items into the jail due to a broken X-ray scanner — one that Hutson says was out of order for months prior to her taking office, but never fixed by her predecessor, Marlin Gusman, the 17-year-incumbent she defeated in the December 2021 runoff election. 

The second reminds staff not to destroy any documents.

Hutson believes some important records — digital and paper — went missing during the months-long transition from Gusman’s administration to hers, and says her administration is currently conducting an investigation.

The memos illustrate the broader dysfunction that Hutson’s team says they walked into when she officially took over the office on May 3, along with simmering suspicions of some members of Gusman’s outgoing leadership team. 

“Because of the lack of a real transition, we knew that we were going to discover a lot,” Hutson said. “When they say ‘on-the-job training’ — we knew that was going to happen.” 

In an interview with The Lens earlier this month, Hutson and her executive staff described a challenging first few weeks on the job. Two detainees at the jail were hospitalized — one for an overdose, another for either a seizure or an overdose, Hutson said. An OPSO deputy shot a man while working a detail in Gert town. And someone called in to a New Orleans Police Department precinct and reported an escape from the jail — which Hutson’s team said they have traced to a parody Tik-tok video filmed near the jail called “When New Orleans Dudes Break Out Jail.”  

After locking down the facility and doing several counts of detainees, it was determined that no escape had in fact taken place.

“During that first two weeks, I think we saw just about everything you could see,” Hutson said. “It was kind of good we got everything thrown at us.”

Hutson praised her team’s handling of the various crises in the early days, but she also described more enduring issues that need to be addressed. Hutson says she has taken over a jail that was “not built with safety in mind,” one that will require major investments in infrastructure, staffing and policy to fix. 

Even necessary repairs to basic security equipment have been allowed to languish, she said. In addition to the broken X-ray scanner — which she said could allow contraband like drugs or cell phones to be smuggled into the jail — she said her team discovered security cameras that were out of operation when she took over. Hutson called it “inexcusable.” 

The problems, Hutson and her team said, have either been caused or made more difficult by what  they characterized as Gusman’s failure to competently run the office, and his lack of cooperation during the transition.

‘That would have guided our process’

Hutson, the former New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, ran on an ambitious, progressive platform, promising to make the jail safer for both staff and detainees, take a less punitive approach to people in custody, and bring the conditions of the jail into compliance with a long-running federal consent decree. She said she would work with other criminal justice leaders in the city on decreasing the jail population. And she came out against a controversial new jail building: a medical and mental health care jail facility known as Phase III that has been in the works, in one form or another, for years. 

Her messaging was in stark contrast to Gusman’s. The former sheriff pushed for a larger jail than many criminal justice reform groups and city leaders thought was necessary, and cast Hutson as inexperienced and soft on crime. And Gusman nearly was able to walk off with re-election after the primary election in November, falling just two percentage points shy of an outright victory. 

But after an increasingly contentious runoff campaign, Hutson was able to pull out an upset victory in December, making her the first Black woman to be elected sheriff in the state of Louisiana. 

Prior to taking office, however,  she encountered an extended, five-month transition period. She hoped that in addition to building out a transition team and identifying the priorities for her administration, the time would allow her to develop a relationship with Gusman’s administration and OPSO employees. 

In late December, Hutson sent Gusman a proposed memorandum of understanding regarding the transition, a non-binding agreement which would have dictated regular transition briefings, meetings between Gusman and Hutson, and “on-site access to a temporary transition workspace” 30-days prior to her taking office, among other things.

“That would have guided our process — systematic. He said, ‘I’m not gonna sign it, but I’m gonna do it,’ “ Hutson said.  “And that didn’t happen. “

In emails to The Lens, Gusman denied that he was uncooperative during the transition, saying that he had his chief administrative officer, Sean Bruno, meet with Hutson on a regular basis, allowed her to take several tours of the facility. He even said he gave Hutson his personal cell phone number.

“It is neither required by law, nor is it common practice, to execute a MOU as part of a transition,” Gusman said. “I assigned [Chief Administrative Officer] Sean Bruno to assist with the transition, and every document requested was provided.”

And Gusman said that Hutson never reached out to express frustration with how things were proceeding. 

“I never received any indication from the sheriff-elect that she had an issue with the manner in which the transition was being handled,” Gusman said. “This seems like a transition to me.” 

‘We suspect some records were removed on purpose’

Nearly a dozen high-level Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office staff members under Gusman left the office in the days leading up to Hutson’s inauguration or shortly after, including Bruno, former general counsel Blake Arcuri, Chief of Investigations Michael Laughlin, and Director of Facilities Isidore Marshall.

Amid the turnover, Hutson says that her team has had “issues finding records.” 

“We suspect some records were removed on purpose,” she said. “Both electronic and hard copies.”

Hutson said she could not specify which records were missing, but said that there is an ongoing investigation and that she didn’t “want to tip anything off just yet.”

The memo posted at the entrance to the jail notes that while conducting a review of OPSO policies, Hutson’s executive team “identified a lack of ‘Records Retention Policy.’ “

“While we are drafting a policy regarding the maintenance of records, we must remind employees and contractors of the OPSO that no one should destroy any documents,” the memo reads. 

In January, an attorney for Hutson sent an extensive public records request to Gusman, which also requested that Gusman “maintain and preserve all records designated as public records,” which must be preserved for at least three years under state law.  

“We had sent this to the sheriff — the former sheriff — during transition to say ‘Look, please make sure you retain all these records. They’re critical,’” Hutson said. “ Of course, injuring or destroying public records is a crime. So we were told we were disappointed to have this go down. But again, we’re still investigating.”

Gusman did not respond to questions specifically regarding the office’s records retention policy prior to his departure.

‘Major and expensive fixes’

In emails, however, Gusman addressed the broken X-ray scanner — and he said that it was working when he left office. 

That’s not true, according to Hutson’s team. Timothy David Ray, a spokesperson for Hutson, said that there was an out-of-order sign hanging on the machine when she took over the facility. 

He also provided The Lens with a Jan. 4 work order email describing a broken scanner. Gusman was copied on the email. In addition, he provided internal meeting agendas from late March and early April that noted an X-ray machine in need of service. Gusman received those meeting agendas as well. 

Ray said that during the months that it was broken while Gusman was still in office, OPSO employees were placing their items in clear bags when entering the jail. But he said that those bags weren’t regularly checked. And while all deputies were required to go through a body scanner, higher ranked OPSO employees and most contractors were not, he said.

In addition to prohibiting personal items from being brought into the jail, Hutson is now requiring everyone, regardless of rank, to go through the body scanner. 

“It’s the employees who are helping to facilitate the inflow of drugs and contraband,” Hutson said. “So that was critical.”

While Gusman denied that the x-ray scanner was broken, he did submit that cameras can go out from time to time, but they were promptly reported for repairs.

“As one can imagine, a facility with over 900 cameras will experience outages,” he said. 

The broken bag scanner and non-functioning cameras, Hutson said, are indicative of the failures of the past administration to maintain the facility in a way that ensured the security of both detainees and employees. But she also said that the way the building was designed and constructed in the first place was inherently unsafe.

“I was very shocked to just see that it is working against the safety of the people there” Hutson said. “The way it was built.”

She said that there are blind spots in the facility where security can’t observe detainees and material inside that can be easily taken apart and repurposed by detainees. 

“There were hooks built — I guess for them to hang clothes on — that had been removed and used as weapons,” Hutson said. “Cabinets that serve no function. One of our main jobs is to get those dismantled and removed from each pod. … Otherwise the handles will be removed or someone will strip the metal inside.”

The problem of detainees using parts of the jail for their own purposes is also one that the court-appointed consent decree monitoring team is aware of and brought up several times in their most recent report last fall, but characterized it as primarily an issue of staffing and supervision.

“Inmates literally are taking the jail apart to fashion weapons,” the report reads. “The failure of staff to keep the utility closets and cabinets locked and to supervise inmates when allowed access to the utility closets and cabinets is the root cause of the problem.

Gusman defended the jail’s design, noting that the architect who designed it, Jerry Hebert, previously served as the chair of the American Correctional Association’s Facility Design Committee and that the “building design has been recognized in several publications.” 

“Again more lies,” Gusman said.

But Hutson said that the jail required “major and expensive” fixes, which are being handled by Pearlina Thomas, who Hutson appointed as her Assistant Sheriff for Governance and Administration. Thomas said that she was in the process of analyzing and prioritizing the changes that needed to be made, and getting advice and recommendations from the consent decree monitors. 

She stopped short of saying that safety would require a new jail altogether. 

“I do believe that the building can be salvaged,” said Thomas. “I don’t want to make it sound like we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“What’s striking to me is what was not invested in — what we didn’t invest in. We didn’t invest in fixing things, we didn’t fit best in training, we didn’t invest in the things that you really need to put into an organization to make it work.”

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...