Christine's Corner

Christine’s Corner: Reflections on Gusman at Justice & Beyond

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Monday night, Sheriff Gusman attended Justice and Beyond’s weekly meeting to respond to the most recent call for his resignation that had been coordinated by the Orleans Parrish Prison Reform Coalition (O.P.P.R.C.) in conjunction with several local, faith-based leaders. Prior to the meeting, there was talk amongst folks at OPPRC, BYP100-New Orleans and W.W.A.V. about staging a silent protest during the meeting. In the first few minutes of the meeting it was made clear that nothing short of respectful questions would be allowed when a lengthy and restrictive introduction to the space was laid out. I didn’t mind when the moderator made everyone in the audience introduce themselves and identify the organization they represent which is normally done at Justice and Beyond (Personally, I don’t like to speak at meetings when I don’t know who’s in the room. Later though I realized it was probably so they could figure out who they would let speak later…). I didn’t even mind that much when we were told that no one could record the meeting because at this point, I think we’d all come to the general understanding that Gusman and his employees have not and will not be transparent, nor will they leave proof of their contradictory statements. I did find it interesting that the audience was full of  Gusman’s employees (who otherwise do not show up in numbers to these meetings), including his lawyer, but even that wasn’t surprising considering the last report I read stated that Gusman pays his lawyers $130,000 a month. He’s a public servant though, so technically we, the taxpayers, are paying that bill (Maybe that’s why he can’t afford to pay his deputies a living wage…).

What does piss me off about the meeting is that it was pointless. Gusman stood up to go over a PowerPoint presentation that would’ve earned a ‘C’ at best in an undergraduate class on the history of the prison system in New Orleans. Multiple slides were devoted to his ‘achievement’ of reducing OPP’s footprint, but almost every slide in that series showed structures that were closed by Katrina, not by Gusman himself. And before you think that this reduction was 100% a good thing and in line with calls for smaller jails, you need to know that inmates were housed in tents up until last year. Through the scorching heat and freezing cold, folks that had not been found guilty of any crime were housed in the tents. The other housing options at OPP weren’t much better, but of course he didn’t talk about that.

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Instead, Gusman spoke about all the good things that are happening at the Orleans Justice Center (that’s what they’re calling the new jail- lipstick on a pig…$145 million dollar lipstick on a very dysfunctional, unconstitutional, human rights violating pig), repeatedly mentioned the government contract money that could be made available to support black owned businesses (as if his jail isn’t incarcerating a sizable portion of the Black community), and threw a little shade on the mutually despised D.A. Cannizzaro.

All in all, I have to say Gusman is smooth. It helped that the meeting was set up to ensure that no one could truly challenge Gusman or his office, but that man can dance. Sometimes, I forget that he’s a lawyer that’s been doing this politician shtick for a long time. The truth of the matter is Gusman is a very well connected, very well educated man that knows how to play to his audience, especially when he essentially owns the theater he’s performing in (I’m not exaggerating. People started to walk out because it was clear they were not going to be called on. At one point, a Black man had to even raise his hand and proxy for a Black woman because they were barely being called on)

My co-worker at WWAV and an organizer with BYP100-NOLA Mwende wanted me to speak up at the meeting (probably, because she was tired of me muttering rebuttals in her ear throughout the meeting) but there was no point. Even when those not in support of Gusman were allowed to ask questions, Gusman talked around them, but did not answer them at all, and when they tried to point out he hadn’t actually answered their qustion, they were shut down by the moderators who accused them of arguing or attacking Gusman.

So here’s some of the things I would have said, if the meeting had allowed it:

  • Stop talking about the reentry program. It was only available to some men who were doing DOC time (Technically, no jail is supposed to house DOC inmates). It was never available to women. Women were never afforded any good time benefits or trainings. Stop using it as a tactic to make folks think something got taken from us that we need back. Hell, when you called on your ‘reentry guy’, Leo Hayden during the meeting, he couldn’t even remember the programs that yall had!! Stop talking about any and all programs that you never had or were only offered to a small segment of the population. 
  • Stop talking about how you’re underfunded when you have brokered exorbitant contracts that are fiscally unsound and you refuse to provide an itemized budget to the public even after numerous requests.
  • Stop saying that you don’t want a larger jail then saying that you don’t want to house people who are mentally ill. Stop talking out of both sides of your mouth. Phase III clearly shows that you do indeed want a bigger jail and that you want to house those who are mentally ill. When you ran for reelection, you made a promise to comply with the consent decree and cap the jail size at 1,438. You haven’t honored that and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change.
  • Stop trying to shift blame to Cannizzaro. Trust and believe that there is enough blame to go around. Cannizzaro needing to go, which he most certainly does, does not put you in the clear. 
  • Stop dangling money in front of community business owners to buy their silence and support. Stop bringing in members of the clergy to sell your farce of a ‘softer, kinder jail’. You may call it the Orleans Justice Center, but we know it’s OPP. We know that justice rarely occurs for the folks locked up there (in fact…there are reports) and it damn sure ain’t blind.
  • Stop telling folks that OPP is somehow cutting edge because yall offer HIV testing and that others don’t to avoid paying for HIV medication. OPP has an opt in HIV testing program and within the last year I know of at least one detainee that waited for a month to get meds after filing several grievances and finally getting a court order before they were given medication.
  • Stop saying that the new jail is any safer. People are still being assaulted. People are still dying. Again, there are reports.
  • Stop talking about men only. Period. That’s it. Just stop talking about men as if there are no women at OPP. 

I could go on and on contradicting his entire ‘C’ grade powerpoint, but of course, we weren’t allowed to record any of it. Mwende was just taking very detailed notes on her phone during the meeting and had a member of Gusman’s staff stand over her shoulder trying to read them, following her even after she switched seats. This isn’t surprising considering all the contradictions Gusman made in his presentation and his actual practices at OPP, I mean, the Orleans Justice Center.

We have two years until Gusman is up for re-election (4 until Cannazarro is). In the 2 years since his last election, he has clearly not adhered to the promises he made to community members and members of OPPRC which was what led to the #RecallGusman campaign. There are many people that are contributing to and profiting from the mass incarceration of Black and poor people in New Orleans. This will not be fixed by replacing one person who represents a large part of the problem, but when that person is responsible for the health and safety of our residents and fails repeatedly and horrifically to do so, that person has to go.

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