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Sheriff Shrugs Off Shocking Video; Calls Out Political Foes

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By Philip Stelly
Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly

Pay no attention to that shocking video of drinking, drugging, gambling and gun play at the House of Detention you’ve all seen in the past week. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman investigated the matter and determined there was not enough hard evidence to sustain a legal case against the inmates seen in the jailhouse video, much less charge his own deputies with anything.

Sheriff Gusman’s response to the 2009 video —released last week as part of a federal consent decree hearing on jail reform—came days after Mayor Mitch Landrieu took aim at Gusman’s leadership, suggesting that the parish prison be managed under federal receivership.

Mayor Landrieu has been sounding the alarm that consent decrees involving both the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and the New Orleans Police Department would be too costly and could result in deep cuts in city services or tax increases.

For his part, Sheriff Gusman said he too has been sounding the alarm about the financial strain the Sheriff’s Office has been under for years. Sheriff Gusman produced a July 2010 letter addressed to Mayor Landrieu. In the letter, Sheriff Gusman told the mayor that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office was facing “an unprecedented financial shortfall” due to a low per diem rate of $22.39 per inmate paid by the city, among other factors.

Sheriff Gusman said he was forced to borrow money to keep the jails afloat while Mayor Landrieu and the New Orleans City Council ignored his pleas.

Sheriff Gusman broke his silence about the financial pressure his department has been under and about the scathing jailhouse videos in a street-side press conference just outside the construction site for the new jail.

There, Sheriff Gusman chided the city for trying to shirk its financial responsibility to the Sheriff’s Office by “throwing mud in every direction.” He then fired away at Mayor Landrieu. “The mayor chooses to waste time with Washington-style politics and Archie Bunker rhetoric.”

Late Thursday, Mayor Landrieu’s office issued a statement again calling for the jail to be managed under federal receivership: “It gets clearer every day that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is not keeping the prison secure and our city safe. This week, expert after expert talked about mismanagement and said this was one of the worst-run jails in the country. That is why I am asking for receivership so corrections experts can run the jail in a safe, secure and fiscally responsible way. I cannot in good conscience cut vital services or raise taxes to put even more money into an office where waste, fraud, and abuse run rampant.”

In his prepared remarks, Sheriff Gusman said what he saw on the video was “despicable and unacceptable.” He later told reporters he did not refer the videos to the District Attorney’s Office because an investigation by the Sheriff’s Office determined that a prosecution could not be sustained against the inmates appearing in the video. “We are law enforcement and we didn’t find any contraband,” Sheriff Gusman said, adding “We didn’t think we could sustain a case based on the video.”

Besides, says Sheriff Gusman, the video is from 2009. “What we saw on the video occurred four years ago in a building that I closed over a year ago,” the sheriff said.

Sheriff Gusman had an explanation for the other shocking video released last week: the 2009 video of jail escapee Arthur Johnson on Bourbon Street. Johnson was captured and sentenced to an additional five years in jail. Another escapee got an additional three years behind bars, the sheriff reported.

As to his political future, Sheriff Gusman indicated he is not going anywhere. He said he has activated his plan to decrease the jail population and modernize jail facilities. “Despite the interruption caused by Hurricane Katrina, I am going to get this right and see this plan through to its completion,” he said.

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk has yet to issue a ruling on the consent decree aimed at reforming the jail.

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