With Hurricane Katrina still over the Gulf of Mexico, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman, New Orleans's chief jailer, convened his ranking officers for an emergency meeting. Present in the sheriff's conference room that Saturday were most of his wardens, as well as the officer in charge of supplies and the head of the jail's kitchen, a huge feeding operation that prepared more than 18,000 meals per day. The sheriff went around the table, asking the officers if they were prepared for a storm. With an average population of about 6,000 inmates, the Orleans Parish Prison was the country's ninth-largest jail. But evacuating the jail in advance of Katrina was not up for debate. No detailed evacuation plan even existed.
This was Gusman's first hurricane season as sheriff. He was a 50-year-old attorney and public administrator with an impressive list of degrees and a substantial career at City Hall. He had been elected to the post just ten months earlier, the first black criminal sheriff in the city's history. Gusman had yet to develop a rapport with his senior staff, most of them holdovers from the previous regime. But he had made an impression. Tall and well-built, with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache, he carried himself like a banker--formal and somewhat aloof. He rarely raised his voice. Though he hadn't instituted major changes since taking office, he had demanded more training for his guards and demonstrated a bean counter's concern for the bottom line, strictly monitoring all purchases and cracking down on officers who clocked in late.
Now, as the storm approached, he was responsible for protecting one of the densest concentrations of humanity in the city. The jail complex, located about a mile and a half from downtown in a blighted neighborhood of rickety shotgun houses and century-old industrial buildings, consisted of a dozen installations scattered between the interstate and busy Tulane Avenue. There was the House of Detention, an aging ten-story tower with a psychiatric ward. A block away was the big, buff-colored cube called the Community Correctional Center, which housed Gusman's offices. Across the street and behind a high concrete wall were five newer dormitory-like structures called the Templeman buildings. At one end of the facility was a workrelease center (in a former elementary school), and at the other, a half-mile away, was the Conchetta women's facility (a converted motel).
In addition to his own inmates, Gusman was also responsible for hundreds of prisoners who had been evacuated to his jail in advance of the storm from neighboring parishes-- not to mention his own staff of hundreds of deputy sheriffs, as well as their husbands, wives, children, and pets, who often rode out storms under the jail's roof. But, this time, the jail wasn't fully prepared for them--or, at least, it wasn't prepared for the worst. According to one person present at the Saturday meeting, the supplies chief informed the sheriff that they had a limited number of flashlights and batteries to power both flashlights and radios. The bottled water in stock might not last very long.
The kitchen chief brought up another problem. If there were flooding as high as there had been some years before, it would be difficult to get meals from the kitchen to the various far-flung detention facilities. And, if entrances were flooded, they would need to break through the facilities' concrete walls somehow. "Absolutely not!" the normally reserved sheriff snapped. "You're not going to cut into my buildings."
For the new sheriff, the jail wasn't just holding cells and high fences. It was one of the great prizes of New Orleans politics--so precious because it was so big. Over the previous 30 years, the jail had grown tenfold, and the political currency of the criminal sheriff had appreciated with it. By the time Gusman took the job, he alone controlled an annual budget exceeding $70 million, and he could spend that money virtually however he wished, doling out jail contracts to friends and supporters. With no civil service protections shielding his roughly 1,200 employees, the sheriff had at his disposal a huge and ready supply of political foot soldiers. The mayor, by contrast, only had some 200 such "unclassified" workers. In the past, the sheriff's machine had been able to deliver thousands of votes to a candidate of his choice; his greater strength, even more difficult to measure, was in his ability to ward off opposition to candidates he favored before a challenge even mounted. And so, depending on whom you asked, the sheriff of Orleans Parish was second in pull only to the mayor, perhaps his equal, or possibly his better.
That the sheriff should have so much clout reveals how much New Orleans's mania for incarceration warped the political culture and how the political culture, in turn, created a profoundly unjust penal system. Before Katrina, no major jurisdiction in America jailed people at a faster clip. On any given day, about 4 percent of the city's working-age males resided under the sheriff's lock and key. Putting all these people behind bars had little effect on violent crime--senseless death was depressingly quotidian in New Orleans, even before Katrina. But, once the jail became a vital component of the city's political machinery, it became difficult to turn off the switch. So it kept growing. Fear had built the jail, but hubris made it an empire. Over a few days last August, before Gusman even had a chance to enjoy his new dominion, the empire fell.
That Saturday night, with the city evacuating, the Maple Leaf bar uptown was celebrating Midsummer Mardi Gras. Raphael Schwarz, a 23-year-old cook, stood outside with a drink in one hand and a cell phone in the other, calling a friend for his own ride out of town. While still on the phone, he was picked up for public drunkenness and taken to the jail.
As usual, much of the population of the Orleans Parish Prison was locked up on misdemeanor drug charges and minor municipal infractions. According to the inmate master list, Schwarz's cellblock included several people arrested for public drunkenness or disturbing the peace. By the time Schwarz arrived, cells were packed, and inmates were sleeping in the dayroom--on tables and on mats on the floor. More ominously, though the power was still on, the phones had gone out. On Sunday, anxious to call relatives and find out about Katrina plans, inmates grew tense. Schwarz, unable to call a lawyer, lay on a bunk below the cellblock's blaring television and tried to sleep.
Early Monday morning, August 29, Katrina made landfall. Schwarz hazily remembers waking up in the middle of the night to hear the guards announcing that there would be no breakfast. He woke up again, this time to shouting and with four inches of water on the floor. The guards had disappeared from their command module. As in other parts of the jail, inmates drew the conclusion that they had been abandoned, left to die--and, to get out, they began to take the jail apart. In Schwarz's cellblock, on the ground floor of Templeman Phase III, inmates crashed a mop bucket against a window that separated them from the corridor.
The commotion didn't last long. Guards showed up again, about 15 of them, armed with pepper spray and batons. To forestall a riot and to get the inmates out of the water, they hurriedly relocated them. Schwarz ended up stuffed in a cell on the second tier of the block with a view down on the dayroom. A six-by-eight-foot unit, built for two inmates, now held eight. Among them was a jumpy man who, by kicking at the cell door, got them all pepper-sprayed. Squeezed into tight quarters, they reached a compromise: Two would sleep on the top bunk, two on the bottom, and four on the floor, heads alternating with feet.
That evening, the power went out and the water started to rise. In the dim light, they watched it fill the dayroom below like a pool; it gradually turned brown with sewage from overflowing toilets. Schwarz saw his socks and shirt float away from the table where he had left them. When the inmates saw the water's surface ripple, they started shouting--someone was wading through the corridor and might come to rescue them. When they heard helicopters overhead, they waved their orange prison shirts outside a damaged window to catch someone's attention. There was no food or water. Schwarz occupied himself by banging his hands against the wall, trying to induce drops to fall from the cell faucet. Working at it for several hours, he could fill half of an eight-ounce plastic cup, and then he'd pass it around for everyone to take a sip.
All over the complex, there were breakout attempts and some, at least temporary, successes. It was as hard for the guards to know what was going on as it was for the inmates. With the radio system and phone lines down, communication was almost nonexistent. Word traveled by shouts or was sent via messengers on the few boats that could be found. Whatever orders Gusman might have given, many people didn't hear them. Officers in the lower ranks had to decide for themselves how to handle the deteriorating situation. In most of the buildings, inmates were thought to be roaming the corridors, and some guards and their supervisors considered it too dangerous to return to their command modules or to deliver water bottles or food or medicine to the cellblocks. Some, though, were willing to hazard the risk.
Platoons made sorties through their buildings, armed with pen-knives, broomsticks, and pepper spray to force inmates back into cellblocks. They heard frightening sounds above them--loud booms "like a bomb going off," one former guard says. They later discovered that inmates had torn metal tables from where they were bolted to the floor and used them to ram through cinderblock walls.
Tyrone Davis, a 27-year-old guard in Templeman III, fetched a crowbar to release dozens of inmates still trapped in ground-floor cells with water past their waists. Some locks were jammed from the water; some doors were stuck in place, having been kicked off their rails by inmates trying to get out; some doors couldn't be opened because the one set of keys was with a watch commander who had evacuated to another facility. Davis and other guards worked in teams of three to pry the doors open. Eighteen hours later, working without stopping, the job was done.
The evacuation of the jail began on Tuesday, when state correctional officers arrived in force. More than 7,000 people were ferried from the complex to a nearby highway overpass, four to six at a time, in the few boats at hand. Getting everyone to the bridge--and from there onto buses parked on the highway--would take more than three days. Schwarz and his cellmates were freed by other guards sometime Thursday, after over three days together. As Davis came outside, he could see the signs of desperate escape. Sheets had been tied together and unfurled from holes made in the concrete walls. Inmates had lit mattresses on fire to signal for help, and cellblocks billowed with smoke. Three inmates had jumped from a building into the barbed wire of an adjacent fence, and guards were now at work trying to untangle them.
On the overpass, conditions weren't much better. The inmates had been moved from stifling cellblocks onto hot asphalt. Standing between them and the hundreds of civilians who shared the bridge were maybe a dozen or so officers. Davis counted his rounds. He had 21 bullets for his holstered .357 Magnum and eight shells for his shotgun.
It was there that Davis saw the sheriff for the first time since Monday afternoon. He was speaking to a TV news crew. Like many guards, Davis hadn't had food, water, or sleep for days. He had been waist- to chest-deep in sewage water for much of that time, urinating wherever he stood. Gusman, though, in his black sheriff's cap and rubber boots, looked collected and camera-ready. "Every time I saw him," Davis later remarked, "he was clean-shaved."
Gusman isn't reflective about his Katrina experience. His posture is pure defense; his spin since the storm has been to describe the evacuation as orderly, even miraculous, and to dismiss contrary accounts as the fabrications of "crackheads, cowards, and criminals," as he told New Orleans CityBusiness, a local weekly newspaper, earlier this year. "There were some people who died on the roofs of their homes, in their attics, in nursing homes, in hospitals," he said in a more recent interview. "They weren't dying here. Now, did they have inconvenience? ... Did they have hardship? Yes. It was difficult. But don't try to equate it with the people in this community who lost their lives."
The state's attorney general, New Orleans's former longtime criminal sheriff, praised Gusman for the largest evacuation of a jail or prison in American history, accomplished with no immediate loss of life. Among some of the jail's rank-and-file, though, the impression lingered that Gusman got lucky. Not only was the jail unprepared for a catastrophe, they believed that the sheriff didn't get his hands dirty during those days of flooding and chaos--that he "didn't smell like we did." This picture was filled out by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which collected more than 1,300 inmate accounts of the evacuation, any sampling of which consistently tells a tale of abandonment, violence, and a lack of food and water.
In another respect, the damage the sheriff suffered was profound. Much of his complex, the basis of his newly won power, was ruined. The flood destroyed the electrical systems of nearly every facility. Holes punctured several buildings. About half of the vehicle fleet was destroyed. An estimated $1.4 million in computer equipment and $2 million worth of inmate jumpsuits and bedding needed to be replaced. And the main medical facility was wiped out.
As for the jail's inmates, Gusman's main source of revenue--bringing in anywhere from $22.39 to $43.50 per head each day--they were moved to others' care. Thousands had been evacuated temporarily to a recreation yard at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state prison about 70 miles inland. Detainees of all kinds were thrown together, no bars between them, and reunited gangs roamed the field settling scores. For several days, the inmates slept in the open, in the rain, until buses came and began transferring them to other facilities.
Much of the sheriff's workforce was gone, too. Some quit when the storm hit, others later, when the stress overwhelmed them. On the terrace of one building, a cleanup crew collected two trashbags' worth of standard-issue sheriff t-shirts with badges still attached. Many officers who worked through the evacuation never returned and became part of the great Katrina diaspora. Gusman's empire wasn't just a collection of empty, broken shells along the interstate; it was in pieces, scattered all over the country. As with the rest of the city, the job of putting it together again would take years. But, on the political calendar, that was a long lag time. Gusman was up for reelection in eight months, and a diminished jail meant a diminished incumbent.
It took a couple of days to wreck Orleans Parish Prison, but it had taken decades to build it. The man who first realized the jail's political potential was an industrious police department attorney (and a second cousin of the then-Mayor Moon Landrieu) named Charles Foti. When Foti became criminal sheriff in 1974, Orleans Parish Prison was a single building. Built in 1929, it was attached to the criminal courthouse and held 800 prisoners. By the time Foti left the office, in 2004, the jail possessed its own skyline. This was due, in part, to changes in criminal justice practices, as well as Foti's talent for tapping alternative funding streams. He maintained a large population of sentenced felons contracted from the state. But his greatest innovation was to aggressively pursue contracts to house federal inmates, which brought in about twice as much money as the state's or city's did.
Louisiana's growing incarceration obsession played a role in the jail's expansion. In the 1980s and 1990s, the state eagerly embraced the drug war and the movement toward mandatory minimum sentences. And, like other cities in the '90s, New Orleans instituted a zero-tolerance policing strategy--believing that, to attack the big crimes, you had to go after the quality-of-life crimes, too. But New Orleans took this strategy to an extreme. Though it habitually ranks among the country's most violent cities, its proportion of arrests for violent crime is less than half the national figure, according to FBI statistics.
Foti actively influenced the policing culture. When inmate levels fluctuated and jail beds became empty, he encouraged the police to make more arrests, and he hustled up business from nearby parishes with overcrowded jails and nowhere to put their own inmates. As a result, although the population of the city was shrinking during these years, the jail--and Foti's power--continued to grow.
With so many bodies at his disposal, Foti could get hundreds of inmates into the city's neighborhoods painting murals or working on clean-up crews. They became a familiar sight in their bright orange jumpsuits, guarded by men with shotguns wearing t-shirts printed with sheriff across the chest and back. The Halloween haunted house in City Park was an annual Foti production--assembled by inmates and manned by deputy sheriffs. So was the big Thanksgiving Day feast at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel, where volunteers served thousands of prison-donated meals to the elderly, while the paunchy, spectacled sheriff presided over it all, chewing an unlit cigar. On Christmas Day, a caravan of deputy sheriffs toured the city delivering furniture, appliances, and other necessities to the poorest neighborhoods. An inmate choir sang while the gifts were unloaded. The sheriff didn't just run a jail, he operated a social services agency.
Foti's power sometimes put him at odds with other city officials. Gusman, when he was working for the mayor, accused Foti of releasing inmates from custody just past midnight, so that the sheriff could squeeze an extra day's worth of payments from the city. Foti further frustrated the mayor and the City Council by refusing to spell out the details of his budget.
But, come election time, with the exception of the occasional Morial (father and son mayors) or Landrieu (a Louisiana political dynasty), Foti was the most recognizable name on the ballot. He was unbeatable. Despite being a white officeholder in a city that was two-thirds black, he was consistently elected either unopposed or with more than 70 percent of the vote. Given his standing in New Orleans--and the hundreds of political workers under his command--other candidates genuflected for his endorsement. His support was vital to the elections of fellow Democrats, such as U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (his cousin) and Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. In 2004, capitalizing on 30 years of empire-building, the sheriff propelled himself into the state attorney general's office.
It was perhaps due to Foti's legacy that Gusman, a polished technocrat with no previous experience in corrections, came to want the job. Gusman was a city councilman for four years before becoming sheriff. For most of his career, though, his role in politics had been out of the spotlight--as a capable hand to the men in power.
Gusman followed a careful path of achievement. He collected an array of academic credentials, earning a dual undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Arts and Sciences and Wharton School and a law degree from Loyola University. He also attended an executive education program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. At 29, Gusman was made a department head under Mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial. After Dutch was elected the city's first black mayor in 1978--when the majority of New Orleans voters were still white--he founded the Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors (Life). Life grew to become one of the most successful of the black political organizations that sought to wrest power from the entrenched white elite that ran the city. In its heyday, it benefited from all the time-honored tactics of machine politics: aggressive door-to-door operations in low-income neighborhoods, horse-trading, and patronage.
Gusman became a loyal soldier and an intricate part of Morial's political machine. In the '90s, during the administration of Dutch's son, Marc, Gusman was the mayor's second-in-command. Marc Morial and Gusman had been friends since they were classmates at an elite local Jesuit high school. Among the many strong personalities in the Morial circle, Gusman came to be known as a cool operator. "Marlin was even-keeled, quiet, said little at the political meetings. But, when he said something, we all paid attention," says Bill Schultz, a onetime Morial ally who ran the campaign to unseat Gusman this spring.
In 2000, Gusman ran for his first elected office--a seat on the City Council. He was a bit stiff on the stump. But he cast an aura of caution and competence. "He's an effective one-on-one campaigner," says community organizer Jacques Morial, Marc's younger brother and the current head of life. "Old ladies love him."
In 2004, when Foti assumed his new office, Gusman saw an opportunity to move beyond the confines of his council district. Life saw an opportunity for Gusman as well. In recent years, it had seen its power wane. After Marc finished his second term as mayor and left to head the National Urban League in New York City, Life lacked a candidate in high office. "They've just never been able to move away from the cult of personality for the Morials," says political consultant Cheron Brylski, Dutch's former press secretary. Moreover, when Marc left office, his time as mayor was widely considered a success. But, since then, there have been accusations of corruption. A federal investigation of his administration's contracting practices so far has resulted in the indictments of several of Marc's associates. Life, like other New Orleans political organizations, was also affected by a simple demographic change: Since the mid-'80s, the majority of voters and officeholders in New Orleans have been black, and the practical need to channel votes through political organizations has faded. In fact, a candidate could benefit from some distance from the political machines. It had become apparent that, for most of New Orleans, they simply hadn't delivered. A poor city hadn't gotten appreciably richer.
Ray Nagin may be the lead indicator of the shift in the political culture. Nagin, who is black, has now been elected twice as mayor without major backing from any of the city's black political organizations. In 2002, after winning his first election, he pledged to clean up the corrupt City Hall he said Morial had left behind.
With the Morials in power and Foti around, the jail had never before entered into life's calculations. But for Gusman--now the group's top office holder and standard-bearer--the position of sheriff, with its visibility and unmatched political advantages, had new worth, not just for itself, but also as a counterweight to Nagin.
Gusman, of course, didn't articulate any of this calculus in his job application. His official line is that, as sheriff, he could "attack crime at its roots." That is, he was interested in the rehabilitative programs at the jail. But the jail didn't make headlines for its rehabilitative programs. It has been subject to judicial supervision for more than three decades--as a product of one of the longest active class-action suits in American corrections--due to ongoing failures in conditions and medical treatment. Neglect has been systematic. One guard might be responsible for the supervision of some 120 inmates, says Rhonda Ducre, a former guard who worked in the House of Detention facility for four years. Inmates could pop their cells with just a plastic fork or spoon and attack other inmates without guards hearing a thing, "unless one of them had the courage to holler out," she says. In recent years, there have been a number of avoidable jail deaths. A few months before Katrina, two guards were indicted for beating an inmate to death the year before--an inmate brought in for public drunkenness. "Frequently, an inmate would die, and you would never hear anything about it on the news," says Joshua Callaway, a former guard.
The post-Katrina reconstruction of the city tends to inspire visions of a better New Orleans. People speak of starting from a clean slate for institutions that previously had been resistant to improvement, such as the school system or public housing or the courts. In reality, though, meeting the pre-Katrina standard is difficult enough. Some people, including the criminal sheriff, would be satisfied just to get things back to where they used to be and to do so as quickly as possible.
If Katrina seemed to have overwhelmed the sheriff, getting the jail operating again showed off his managerial tenacity. Gusman wasted no time. Flooding had spared the cellblocks of the House of Detention, which started at the third floor, so it was easier to bring it back online. When the water level subsided, a small generator was set up outside, and officers took turns fueling it with buckets of diesel.
The state had established a temporary courthouse and detention center at the Greyhound bus station a couple of miles away, near the Superdome, to deal with new arrestees. A public defender there informed minor offenders, such as alleged curfew breakers, that, if they pleaded "not guilty," they would be sent to a state penitentiary to await further adjudication--a process that, given the state of the courts and the absence of defense attorneys, could take weeks or months. Or they could plead "guilty" and then pay $200 or get 20 hours of community service. That might mean a few days hauling debris out of the jail.
The guards still in New Orleans and still on the payroll were put on trash duty, and even Gusman himself took part in removing the jail's moldy remains. Officers were in short supply, and, to lure some back, Gusman raised pay and purchased 22 trailers for guards to live in. He later set up two trailer camps at either end of the complex.
Gusman locked up his first new inmates on October 17, just seven weeks after Katrina. He opened his doors before any public school, the criminal courthouse, the district attorney's office, or police headquarters--the latter two buildings still sit vacant. The Orleans Parish Prison was an island in a city of wreckage--but still not fully functional. With most New Orleans hospitals closed, inmates in need of serious medical attention had to be transported to Baton Rouge or Independence, both about 70 miles away. And the jail lacked sufficient staff and equipment to support dialysis or AIDS treatment. Just before Christmas, the sheriff told New Orleans CityBusiness why he was repopulating the jail, despite lacking ready medical care for inmates: He wanted inmates out in the community, on work crews, "helping it rebuild."
Gusman was relentless. In October, with a cash-strapped City Hall forced to lay off thousands, the sheriff filed a motion in federal court against the city, seeking to collect on more than $3 million in outstanding jail bills for July and August, prior to Katrina. Nagin, Gusman's political rival, was outraged and called the move "incredibly insensitive and mean-spirited." But, Gusman explained, without inmates and the steady per-diem payments that came with them, he needed a way to pay his fixed costs. Perhaps the sheriff's motivation was spite; perhaps it was a practical ploy to force the mayor to seek funding from federal sources. On its face, though, it looked like a stubborn refusal to adjust to reality.
This spring, Gusman faced his first reelection campaign as sheriff. While his jail had begun to creep back to life, eight months after Katrina, the political machinery Gusman commanded was still broken, perhaps irreparably. From a campaigning standpoint, the jail was now useless to the sheriff. When he tried to deploy inmate cleaning crews into neighborhoods-- in the past always an excellent, no-cost promotional tool--he lacked sufficient guards to look after them, and he had to scale back the program. Nor could he ask many of his guards to volunteer their free time for him. As it was, he was short-handed, and the few hundred staff on duty were already working overtime.
The city was drained of half its people. With the flooding and subsequent diaspora, whole neighborhoods had disappeared from the political map. Even if Gusman were at full staff, it's questionable what a political army of deputy sheriffs would have been able to accomplish. "What are you going to do with them on Election Day? Stand on a corner where no one lives?" asks Jacques Morial. "Knock on 200 doors and get no answer?"
Black neighborhoods were the hardest-hit areas. Gusman's own neighborhood in Gentilly--in the heart of Creole New Orleans--had been crawling back. New Orleans East, though, was almost uninhabitable, the Lower Ninth Ward completely so. The established order of black politics, already in decline, had been further decimated.
Jacques Morial says he and Gusman first discussed the changed political landscape about a week after the flooding subsided. They recognized early on that their biggest problem was that their traditional voters had been scattered all over the country, out of reach. Phone trees were now largely useless. For months, one of Life's main efforts was acquiring cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and only about a dozen core Life operatives had come back to town to do the work. Direct mail to absentee voters wasn't an option: The elections board resisted releasing their new addresses.
The jail became an obstacle for Gusman. He might have run unopposed, but, following the storm and evacuation, current and former high-ranking officers fed the local press their complaints about Gusman's Katrina performance. His opponent, Gerald DeSalvo, a young defense attorney with close ties to the police union, shaped his campaign entirely around the sheriff's alleged failures during Katrina. DeSalvo publicized the claims of one jail employee who attested to the chaos of the evacuation and said he saw a body bag allegedly containing a guard who died from smoke inhalation.
With ground operations crippled, Gusman's answer was television and radio--lots of it. His campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to firmly establish the sheriff's own narrative of Katrina. In one ad, he was the sheriff who waded through the floodwaters with a cutting torch to free female inmates from the Conchetta facility. A DeSalvo supporter gathered witness testimony to dispute Gusman's claim in court.
Yet Katrina hadn't destroyed funding sources for the campaign. Contractors, possibly with an eye toward business with the jail, contributed generously, and Gusman's spots were broadcast not just in New Orleans, but in Houston and Baton Rouge, where many New Orleans voters were staying. On April 22, Gusman crushed his relatively unknown challenger, winning a full four-year term by a margin of two to one. New Orleans evacuees, scattered about the country, had to make an extra effort to learn about the various candidates, says Russell Henderson, a community organizer and a former Life activist. "So they were going to vote for who they knew."
Before Gusman was first elected sheriff, he had made a number of promises to a coalition of prison reform groups. One of those promises was a smaller jail. Yet a significant reduction was never possible--because of the large debt incurred to build such a large jail in the first place. "If it weren't for the debt, it would be easier to shrink the prison size, perhaps to half the size," Jacques Morial says. "But [the sheriff] has to increase the prison population to pay the per diem, to pay the debt service." By that reasoning, the jail justifies the need for inmates, rather than inmates justifying the need for a jail.
But, in May, Gusman realized that, even if he had the inmates, he no longer had the space to house them. At the time, only a few of the prison's ten detention buildings were habitable. He informed Calvin Johnson, then the chief judge of criminal court, that at about 1,500 inmates--about one-fourth of its pre-storm population--the jail was overcrowded. With the jail at its extreme limit, the criminal justice system was forced to be more introspective about its policing practices: The judge released all detainees arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors. "We have a limited number of jail spaces, and we can't fill them with people charged with minor offenses such as disturbing the peace, trespassing or spitting on the sidewalk," Johnson told The Times-Picayune. "I'm not exaggerating: There were people in jail for spitting on the sidewalk."
Gusman has always been media averse, and the coverage that followed Katrina made him more so. When The New York Times ran a story in May linked to a report about the treatment of incarcerated juveniles during the flooding, the sheriff offered no comment. The first attempts for an interview for this story were rebuffed. A media consultant advised Gusman's spokesperson to say that the sheriff was too busy. "He should say that preparations for the upcoming hurricane season will occupy his full-time attention," wrote Malcolm Ehrhardt, in an e-mail that he mistakenly sent to my inbox. Finally, a chance encounter with the sheriff in a New Orleans restaurant led to an interview, an hour later, at the jail.
The sheriff used to have his choice of offices, including a large wood-finished library that evoked an Ivy League school rather than a jail. Now his office is an air-conditioned RV. His spokesperson and a receptionist work in a trailer parked next to it. It was a hot June day. The sheriff took a bottle of water from the refrigerator, sat down in the leather driver's seat of the RV, and pointed out the window at the remains of his realm. Only five of his ten detention facilities were online, and the biggest ones were nowhere near reopening.
Gusman wasn't daunted by the challenge. Dressed in his royal blue shirt with a monogrammed cuff and a conservative tie, he acknowledged that, while space is tight, the system should discriminate when it comes to locking up major versus minor offenders. But he seemed unaware that New Orleans might want to adjust its long-term priorities.
New Orleans's population is currently half what it was before the storm, and the talk is of institutional downsizing: how to make everything both smaller and better. Gusman isn't interested. I asked if he had conducted any demographic projections so that he could match his rebuilding plans to a shrunken city population. "I'm not really focused on that," he said. "I don't know if there would be any real correlation between the population and the number of beds anyway." In fact, given the choice, the sheriff said he would prefer to build the jail back up to the pre-Katrina capacity, which was officially rated at more than 7,500 inmates. According to fema, the sheriff's office has requested $57 million to repair jail buildings, replace equipment, and cover overtime pay--and $31 million has already been allocated. Gusman indicated the area down the block where FEMA is funding the construction of a number of barrel-vaulted tents. The $5 million facility will house some 800 inmates. But even this won't be enough to fully resurrect the jail.
Without Foti's personality, without a strong life, and with several thousand fewer bodies at the jail thanks to Katrina, the criminal sheriff's office is no longer untouchable. As the sheriff makes demands, it will be easier to question the role of the jail, the need to invest in locking up the people it does, and the largely hidden nature of its finances. The city officially owns half the buildings that constitute the jail, and Nagin, as the representative of a post-machine politics, has shown little interest in rebuilding. Gusman's power may continue to fade. In a bid to streamline government, the governor recently signed a provision to combine the office of civil sheriff--a less powerful position that oversees security at the civil courthouse--with criminal sheriff in 2010. It may pit Gusman against Paul Valteau, a Life ally and the highest vote-getter in the most recent citywide election. Other offices attached to the traditional political machinery, such as the city's assessor offices, also potentially face consolidation. Now, in the wake of Katrina, all are under threat, and, as the competition for resources plays out in the rebuilding of the city, there is a chance--a small one, perhaps--for some things to change.
David Morton is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.