What Matters Beyond Phase III In The Sheriff’s Election

Inmates” by Editor B is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There’s a lot of buzz around Sheriff Marlin Gusman right now with the October 9th election approaching. Gusman announced in April that they would be running for re-election. They were originally elected as Sheriff in 2004 and served on the city council for four years. 

Since 2013, however, the city has been under a federal consent decree for deplorable carceral conditions. In 2016, a federal court sidelined Gusman after their administration’s failure to demonstrate improvement and instated a “compliance director” to run the New Orleans jail. Gusman regained oversight over the facility only a year ago, but continually has claimed credit for improved conditions.

In the last sheriff’s election in 2017, Gusman went unopposed. This time, three challengers are vying for the seat. Susan Hutson, former independent monitor for the New Orleans Police Department, Chris Williams, former federal security official, and Quentin Brown, who has worked in lawn-care and has run for sheriff before, announced their bids to run. 

Hutson appears to be the candidate with the most potential and certainly the most coverage. Hutson would be the first female Orleans Parish Sheriff. Despite this being their first campaign for elected office and Gusman’s sizable reserve of campaign funds, Hutson has attracted a lot of positive attention for their expertise and more progressive ideals. Notably, Hutson has been outspoken in community meetings regarding the planned Phase III facility for inmates with acute and sub-acute mental health conditions. Gusman supports the planned 89-bed facility. Hutson has spoken out against it, criticizing the logic of criminalizing mental illness with overzealous investment in jail infrastructure in the name of the federal consent decree. Gusman maintains that the new facility is absolutely necessary to meet constitutional compliance.

In the wake of Jason Williams’ successful campaign for District Attorney as a progressive, many see potential in Hutson’s candidacy. Gusman has attempted to claim the laurels of the massive decrease of the Orleans parish prison population. However, that effort has been primarily driven by municipal and grassroots efforts. It appears to Hutson and others that Gusman wants to have their cake and eat it too by simultaneously claiming credit for improved conditions and disavowing responsibility for ongoing issues. These issues include, but are not limited to, unsanitary conditions, violence, sexual harassment, and further constitutional concerns (beyond the existing consent decree) in regards to attorney-client privilege. The question of Phase III has gotten the most attention recently, but it is one that is ongoing and evolving. However, there’s much more to consider as we go into election season and determine who the best candidate is.

Sanitation & The Eighth Amendment

The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to criminal justice issues, published an article about the heinously unsanitary conditions at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) that lead to the fatal infection of an inmate. Farrell Sampier was being held in OPP before being transferred to Angola State Penitentiary. Sampier’s mother reported that while at OPP, Farrell began to experience numbness in their extremities that ultimately culminated with bodily paralysis. Sampier would be diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder generally caused by infection. Right before their symptoms began, Hurricane Isaac had battered the prison and pushed ankle-deep sewage water into cells. 

It doesn’t take a professional investigator, let alone a sheriff, to see that Sampier’s illness was not naturally caused. At the time at which Sampier was transferred to Angola prison, they still had not received sufficient medical attention to even render a diagnosis, despite serious symptoms. Sampier would die unnecessarily under the insufficient care and unsanitary conditions of Angola, which would lead to a federal trial. In March, a federal judge ruled that Angola’s medical facilities violated the Eighth Amendment citing Sampier’s 2019 testimony prior to their untimely death seven times in the decision. The court also ruled that the prison violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It is without a doubt that several years of treatment that should not even be recognized as medical care in any sense at Angola, a West Feliciana parish facility, is what lead to Sampier’s death, but it should be noted that Sampier’s mother isolates OPP as the root cause of Sampier’s illness. Ultimately, this issue is directly related to the question of consent decree – as long as inmates are falling extremely ill from conditions, the consent decree will never end.

Attorney-Client Privilege & The Sixth Amendment

A major question in this year’s sheriff race is who will be best at achieving constitutional compliance under the federal consent decree, which has yet to be resolved over the course of eight years. Gusman has insisted to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the consent decree, that Orleans Parish facilities are up to constitutional standards, but jail monitors tell very different stories with some even suggesting backsliding in conditions.

Court Watch NOLA, a grassroots organization to promote transparency in New Orleans criminal courts, released their annual report in July. They found a troubling prison policy in regards to recorded calls that raises constitutional concerns. Generally, all calls from New Orleans prisons are recorded and stored in a database as part of the THREADS program. In 2017, the organization asked the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office to no longer record attorney-client privileged calls made from the jail. Having these calls recorded impinges on the sanctity of confidential counsel, a right protected by the Sixth Amendment.

The Sheriff’s Office agreed to not record these calls anymore, but only if the attorney used their landline and submitted a notarized affidavit. These conditions don’t have a clear evidentiary justification and further chill the exercise of a central legal right. Additionally, the company that operates the THREADS program, Securus, has been hacked multiple times, leaking the information they store from these calls, which includes the personal information of anyone called from one of their jails. To be clear, when these calls are made or received, the caller’s name and billing information is stored in this database. Securus has already had to make legal settlements in multiple states for improperly recorded attorney-client privileged phone calls.

Court Watch NOLA recommends the following: “All attorney-client calls made from the jail should be unrecorded. The process by which attorneys are able to receive phone calls from their clients should be simple, clear, and streamlined; a notarized affidavit should not be required. The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office should not take part in the Securus THREADS program unless it can ensure confidential attorney-client phone calls are not part of such a database and financial liability does not rest upon the people of Orleans Parish.” 

Work Culture & Sexual Harassment

In 2018, there were reports of a work-culture amongst jail staff of sexual harassment. Female deputies spoke out against the toxic work culture at Orleans Parish facilities stating that they were “openly evaluated based on their looks.” Former deputy Christine Conner, who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in federal court against the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said that female colleagues are treated like “candy” and male deputies “pass them off to each other.” At the time of this report, neither the acting “compliance director,” Darnley Hodge Sr. or Sheriff Gusman commented substantively on the topic.

More recently, in June, a female employee of Wellpath, the New Orleans jail medical provider, was surrounded and trapped by inmates who reportedly masturbated around the employee. The deputy assigned to watch the Wellpath employee reportedly watched television instead. The Sheriff’s Office and Wellpath blamed the employee and placed them on unpaid leave. Security video made it clear that the deputy had no intention of looking after the employee.

This same employee also reported doing much more than originally hired for due to staff shortages. An issue that has been recently examined in discussions surrounding the planned Phase III facility, which Gusman supports in the face of widespread opposition from community groups, the Mayor’s Office, and the City Council. 

Tracie Washington, a New Orleans attorney, was hired by Gusman in 2014 for consent decree-related reasons, but eventually was tasked with sexual harassment training for deputies. Washington has said that sexual harassment is one of the major drivers of high turnover rate among deputies. 

Sheriff Gusman when asked if the Sheriff’s Office has a sexual harassment problem, they responded, “No.”

In Review

Everyone wants to see the end of this eight-year consent decree, including Sheriff Gusman who has already attempted to appeal to Judge Africk to end it. However, to this, the federal court said, “the time isn’t ripe for the end of the ‘consent decree,’” citing frequent violence, staffing shortages, ongoing narcotic contraband issues, and lacking suicide precautions. Given that Gusman has simultaneously supported the Phase III facility in the name of constitutional compliance, and also claimed to a federal court under oath that we are constitutionally compliant, there are many questions to be asked. Phase III remains on the front of the mind of federal courts, politicians, and the public, but this race has much more at stake.

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