It finally came down to three videos.
After years of allegations of human rights abuses at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP); after years of suicides, mysterious deaths and brazen daylight escapes; after innumerable stories of beatings and rapes; after scathing reports by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that found jailhouse conditions so intolerable that it forced the negotiation of a consent decree; after a federal class-action suit by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of OPP inmates — after all that, what finally pushed everyone over the edge about conditions at OPP were three videos, shot in 2009 at the now-closed House of Detention (HOD).
The videos were mind-numbing. They included footage of inmates shooting dice behind bars, waving fistfuls of cash, showing off a loaded handgun and discharging live ammo on the floor of a cell to prove the weapon was loaded. They portrayed prisoners crushing pills, snorting them, and shooting injectable drugs. Most outrageous of all, one video showed a “prisoner” strolling down Bourbon Street, boasting that he was supposed to be behind bars and that he could walk out the door again if things didn’t go his way at trial. “If they don’t let me go, I’m running,” he says with a grin.
If the videos hadn’t been introduced into evidence in federal court — with no objection from Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman — people might mistake them for parodies on Saturday Night Live. Sadly, they are all too real. They show in graphic detail the jailhouse culture that Gusman has overseen since he took office in 2004. Moreover, if the accusations brought by the plaintiffs and the DOJ weren’t enough; if the escapes, suicides and suspicious deaths inside OPP weren’t enough; if the recent federal corruption charges filed against two of Gusman’s ranking deputies weren’t enough; then surely the videos — which aired on every local newscast and went national — make it plain that Gusman has to go. He is not fit to continue serving as New Orleans’ sheriff.
In his defense, Gusman initially said he closed HOD because conditions there were so bad. Really? The videos were shot in 2009; Gusman didn’t close HOD until 2012. Is there any reason to believe conditions in OPP’s other facilities are any better today?
Worst of all, Gusman clearly knew about the videos. He kept them in a safe in his office, though — unbelievably — he testified under oath he didn’t have “a clear recollection” of either the videos or the safe. He later admitted to a recollection of seeing prisoners swilling beer and brandishing guns. As for the “prisoner” cavorting on Bourbon Street, Gusman said there might have been “some malfunction with the exit door.” Talk about understatement.
Given that the videos show various illegal acts — many of them felonies — what’s Gusman’s excuse for not reporting those crimes to the cops or to the feds? The sheriff, a lawyer, certainly knows that it’s a felony to know about a crime and yet fail to report it. He released the videos only last week in response to a subpoena from the city, which is fighting the sheriff and the DOJ’s proposed consent decree in federal court.
The city claims the proposed settlement would cost New Orleans taxpayers more than $220 million — and that Gusman, who clearly has mismanaged the jail, should not be given more money to misspend. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to appoint a receiver to oversee the jail in lieu of approving the proposed consent decree. Actually, the judge could do both — but at a minimum he should take Gusman out of the picture. The sooner, the better. If the videos and hours of testimony about rapes, assaults and other abuses aren’t enough, Gusman’s disingenuous testimony justifies appointing a receiver.
After testifying, Gusman provided further evidence of his unworthiness to remain in office when, at a news conference, he tried to blame City Hall for the jail’s ills. He previously claimed that he had run a “constitutional” jail. If that’s true, then why did he sign the consent decree — as a ruse to bilk taxpayers out of more money for his political empire? Gusman can’t have it both ways. If he were in fact running a “constitutional” jail, there would be no basis for a consent decree.
Gusman should do the citizens of New Orleans a favor and resign. If he chooses to stay, Judge Africk should appoint a receiver to clean up OPP — and New Orleans voters should elect a new sheriff early next year.