On March 21st, 2016, a collection of community members and organizations led by The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) called a press conference to demand the resignation of Sheriff Marlin Gusman. The action was supported by a group of more than a dozen Black religious leaders in the city echoing the call for Sheriff Gusman’s resignation after ongoing and increasing violence despite a new jail facility. In a video taken of the press conference for WDSU, Norris Henderson, Executive Director of V.O.T.E., explains the reasons behind the current call for Gusman’s resignation, but in order to understand the full context for the call for resignation, a brief history of OPPRC, the Sheriff and criminalization in the incarceration capital of the world is warranted.
In 2004, a group of concerned local activists came together to form the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) to influence changes in the New Orleans jail. OPPRC, made of individuals and local organizations such as V.O.T.E., Hope House and Women With A Vision, is dedicated to improving the systemic conditions of both Orleans Parish Prison and the community outside the walls of the jail in an effort to end mass incarceration. OPPRC advocates for a smaller and safer jail with the end goal of reallocating some of those funds towards building a supportive community.
Our coalition partners are unified by the fight to end mass incarceration and worsening conditions in the local jail acknowledging that many issues in New Orleans have brought us to this tipping point, including the systemic racism that permeates throughout the city and has led to a lack of of affordable housing, lack of employment opportunities, and the absence of a fair living wage among others. WWAV sees that the intersection of race and gender in particular have unjustly put more women behind bars. Predatory policing of black folks, sex workers, and transwomen runs rampant and in conjunction with an increased militarization of our local police system. Police violence and sexual assault by officers is too common, unreported due to distrust of the police or when reported not meaningfully investigated and most often inflicted upon Black women, other women of color and transgender women. Once involved in the criminal justice system, all of these groups also face excessive charges, high fines and fees, and forced plea deals on a regular basis.
Increased criminalization and a broken court system that includes a bankrupt public defender’s office is intrinsically linked to the breakdown of the criminal justice system in New Orleans. Reports from the Human Rights Watch in 2005 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2006 on the horrific conditions OPP inmates were subjected to during Hurricane Katrina raised awareness of something advocates had known for years: there was an urgent need for reform in the local jail. Following a 2008 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into conditions at OPP, the DOJ issued a 2009 report detailing the findings of its investigation, namely that conditions at OPP violated the constitutional rights of inmates.
In April 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was not convinced that sufficient changes had been made in OPP despite the stream of reports. In response, they filed a class action lawsuit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman in Jones v. Gusman, “on behalf on men, women, and youth imprisoned at [OPP]”. The suit named Gusman along with multiple wardens and several other staff members as defendants with SPLC contending that,
“Sheriff Gusman demonstrates deliberate indifference to the basic rights of the people housed at OPP by implementing constitutionally deficient security, staffing, classification and mental health policies and practices.”
Sheriff Marlin Gusman | Photo Credit: The Advocate
In the months that followed the SPLC filing, the DOJ joined the suit as an additional plaintiff, and the City of New Orleans was added as an additional defendant. ” The parties were able to form a consent decree (an agreement or settlement to resolve a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt), to address the unconstitutional conditions at OPP in December 2012 and lead a charge for reform. This consent decree was the most comprehensive of its kind between the DOJ and a police department, and in June 2013, the federal judge overseeing the case approved the decree putting it into effect. In August 2013, the Office of the Consent Decree Monitor was formed which has since released a series of reports about compliance (or lack there of) which can be found here:
Sheriff Marlin Gusman won re-election in 2014 under the promise of full compliance with the consent decree, but repeated investigations by federally-appointed monitors have shown that conditions may be just as bad as ever in the jail, if not worsening. What the consent decree reports essentially say, is that since 2013, very little progress has been made in reducing the constant human rights violations inside of Orleans Parish Prison. Despite lawsuits and continual pressure from federal courts and the Justice Department, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has consistently illustrated that he either lacks the leadership, ability or neglects to end the violence for those under his supervision in OPP.
Sheriff Gusman claims that the delay in complying with the consent decree is due to lack of city funding, which is legally responsible for the funding operations at the jail. For example, Gusman often states that higher pay is required for jail staff in order to attract and retain qualified employees capable of meeting the demands for better conditions (this argument has been rejected by federally-appointed investigators, who point to poor hiring practices and a “dysfunctional institutional culture” as the real reasons for issues of inmate and staff violence going unchecked).
Very recently, there also has been disagreement over the best way to meet the specific requirements of providing the appropriate amount of staffing in the jail. The Sheriff’s office has been transferring over 100 local inmates at a time to parish prisons in northern Louisiana, arguing that doing so is the only way to make sure adequate supervision is available for the remaining inmates at OPP. However, advocates for the incarcerated have pointed out that transferring local inmates hours away from their homes causes them to miss court dates and deprives them of access to their attorneys and family members.
The issues in this city extend far past the consent decree and the size of our jail. We are obligated to raise our voices for those victims who do not feel comfortable coming forward due to fear of involvement with the criminal justice system or fear of the police. We believe that increased incarceration simply means more people whose lives will take a turn for the worse; often incarcerated folks are people of low income and people of color who already are at a disadvantage, and even upon release have access to fewer support services and opportunities. A Sheriff whose efforts have only served to increase jail size without increasing the quality of the prison and treatment of prisoners has only made this situation worse. That is why we demand that Sheriff Gusman resign immediately.