There’s A New Sheriff In Town – And She Needs Us Now More Than Ever

The sun has set on Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s almost two decade reign over Orleans Parish, and has risen over a successor whose presence shatters multiple glass ceilings. Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson will become the first female and first Black female sheriff of Orleans Parish. A leader with a progressive voice and the love of the people, as well as a multitude of grassroots criminal justice reform organizations behind her, it is safe to say Ms. Hutson is fully capable of meeting her charge. Yet, the question remains: are we?

A new and female face as the leader of Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office brings the opportunity for nuanced change and to confront a multitude of issues that belie the office and the city of New Orleans. Election seasons bring about a laundry list of important matters to the forefront. Grassroots organizations lobbying for criminal justice reform, particularly organizations like Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, which vehemently rallied citywide opposition against the proposed Phase III psychiatric facility through Orleans Parish Justice Center (OPJC). Various law enforcement agencies in the greater New Orleans area continue to report soaring crime rates, which so often occur in periods of economic strife, such as that brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A pattern of deaths of incarcerated persons occurring inside of OPJC, including that of two women featured on the 2021 Netflix series “Jailbirds: New Orleans” is another major and warranted source of public outrage. Election season offers one the feeling that hope is on the horizon. However, Sheriff-elect Hutson and her administration are a small part of the bigger picture of the movement against mass incarceration in Louisiana, and, if a more progressive and just world is possible, the way we as a community view incarceration must change in addition to who holds the keys to the jail.

Once every month, I travel to the Orleans Parish Justice Center. With me, I carry a rolling cart of roughly 2,000 organic, cotton menstrual products, enough for each woman incarcerated there to have three a day for the average 7-day menstrual cycle. I do this on behalf of my nonprofit organization, The Thurman Perry Foundation, through our Girl Code initiative to eliminate period poverty for the women incarcerated at OPJC. I do this because I am an epidemiologist and women’s incarceration is a public health issue. I do this because I, myself, am a formerly incarcerated woman. I do this because, often, incarcerated women must resort to ripping up bed sheets, using toilet paper, re-using menstrual products, or soiling their clothes to maintain their dignity while incarcerated. I do this because incarcerated persons are still members of our community and deserve to have their humanity recognized. 

It is well-known that the state of Louisiana incarcerates the most people, per capita, in the entire world and that 49% of our state’s residents have a criminal record. Does that data mean people who commit crimes are inherently more prone to violence? Are we “bad” people? Or are our currently and formerly incarcerated residents trapped in a cycle of poverty and recidivism because we won’t hire them, house them, educate them, allow their children in our daycares because of their parents’ legal records, and allow other discriminatory practices that make it harder for them to reacclimate into society upon re-entry? A new sheriff alone will not create a more just Orleans Parish. We cannot demand of our elected leaders what we do not put into practice ourselves. Creating more opportunities for those impacted by incarceration by hiring formerly incarcerated persons, sponsoring after school programs for New Orleans youth, communally funding food pantries around New Orleans to fight food insecurity, donating your time or voice to grassroots organizations already doing the necessary work are all ways to create the safer Orleans Parish we all desire. A more progressive New Orleans is possible outside of election season if we stop looking at our elected leaders as our Messiahs and look at each other as a community. 

As a progressive candidate, Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson’s success is our success and her failure is our failure. The carceral system relies upon the permanent separation of those it takes from us as a community, even upon release. It achieves exactly that if we only offer our collective voices in the pursuit of justice once every few years. I join the majority of Orleans Parish in the congratulatory hope of Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson’s victory leading to a new era of justice and reform for a community so ravaged by the grief of mass incarceration. However, more than well-wishes, what Sheriff-elect Hutson will need most to carry out her campaign promises is a community just as focused on change tomorrow as they are today.  

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