NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Sheriff Marlin Gusman's decision to ship out 600 inmates is being met with harsh criticism. Families are upset, city officials worry about millions of dollars in new expenses, and judges say there will be more delays in court.
And at Orleans Parish Prison, relatives of inmates are having a tough time keeping up.
"We are surprised. A young lady said they are transferring him," said Blaine Williamson, a relative of an inmate just shipped out.
He and other family members worry about the distance and the fact that he's on medication, which needs to be monitored. Gusman has already transferred out 138 inmates as of Wednesday to jails up to 400 miles away.
"I'm not sure how long it's going to last. We have to increase our hiring and retention. The police department is spending all the money it has to increase hiring, and none of that is being done over here," Gusman said.
The U.S. Department of Justice has sharply criticized conditions at the jail and staff training, and Gusman said he needs to move out a total of 600 inmates to more adequately train his staff.
"It's upsetting that we will have 1,000 Orleans pretrial detainees housed outside of the parish," said Katie Schwartzman, an attorney for the MacArthur foundation, which is a party to a lawsuit challenging jail conditions.
"It's as mind-boggling as many of his other decisions over the last couple of years," said Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the New Orleans City Council's Criminal Justice Committee.
The decision will be a costly one, especially when you consider that Gusman recently asked the city for an extra $3 million. But Gusman said he has no idea what transportation and inmate housing costs will be for the next several months.
"It definitely puts us in a crunch. We've more than doubled his budget in the last three years," said Guidry.
The move is also expected to create hardships for attorneys trying to defend clients.
"They need access to their lawyers and families, and now they are going to be housed hundreds of miles away because we don't have a jail that's safe for them," Schwartzman said.
Local electronic monitoring providers said the transfers could be avoided in a large percentage of cases if more inmates were placed on monitors.
"We haven't had one cut off. We've helped people with drug problems," said Matt Dennis with the monitoring firm Alternatives2incarceration.
He currently has 200 Orleans Parish defendants on monitors.
Not having prisoners close is already creating delays at Orleans Criminal Court. Chief Judge Laurie White tells FOX 8 she learned of the transfers not from the sheriff, but from the news.
"Courts are delayed daily because the sheriff cannot produce the defendants in our courts, much less provide them in a timely manner," White said in a statement.
"It's a shame that it's come to this," said Schwartzman.
The transfers also came as a surprise to attorneys who have recently filed court papers asking for more federal oversight of a facility that the DOJ says has been slipping, in spite of the $145 million new jail that opened last September.
"At this point, it's clear the jail isn't being run safely. We've had years to try and fix it, and it hasn't happened," said Schwartzman.
For relatives of inmates, the displacement is a personal hardship.
"We need to get to the bottom of this," said Blaine Williamson.
The sheriff says he plans to move 180 more inmates in the next seven days.
"It's simply a matter of compliance with the consent decree," said Gusman, who blames the city for not properly funding jail operations.
"No list is given the courts as to when inmates are being brought in," Judge White said. "This delays trials and motions in every section of court, on an almost daily basis."
A hearing is set for May 25 to discuss more federal oversight of Orleans Parish Prison. Gusman has asked for a 60-day extension, something the MacArthur foundation said it will oppose.