Sheriff of the Year: Susan Hutson (+ the people who elected her)
Newsletter for December14. 2021
She hasn’t taken office yet, but there’s no question that Susan Hutson, the newly-elected sheriff of New Orleans, is the sheriff of the year.
This weekend, Susan Hutson won the election for New Orleans sheriff, defeating 17-year incumbent Marlin Gusman with 53% of the vote. Huston, a long-time police monitor, is one of the very few Black women holding the office of sheriff and the only one in the history of the state of Louisiana. (There was for a brief moment in time a female sheriff in Louisiana who was appointed, but not elected.)
Hutson is also not a cop although she had been working to reform law enforcement her entire career. It’s rare to have people without a law enforcement background in the office of sheriff. Rarer still in Louisiana, where the state constitution gives sheriffs a great deal of power. It remains to be seen how this power will translate into policy beyond New Orleans, but I hope, in the least, it reminds sheriffs that their office is not inherited – they have to work for their money. (To be clear, Gusman was also not from law enforcement. After law school, he held a variety of government positions before becoming sheriff.)
The run-off election was a bit of a nail-biter, largely because the Gusman campaign issued a variety of attack ads associating Hutson with “felons” and “abolitionists,” as well as a terribly racist and sexist mailer (once which Gusman’s campaign disavowed but, per credible sources, did come from a supporter in NOLA).
The real credit goes to the community and the grassroots activists who have been pounding the pavement for well over a decade. During his campaign, Gusman claimed that he had made some reforms, citing the new jail and the decreased size. But, it was the community who pushed him to reduce the size of the jail. Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Parish Prison held around 6,000 people. By the time Gusman got around to rebuilding the destroyed building (with FEMA money), local activists and community members forced Gusman to agree to a much smaller jail, which was a cap of 1,438 beds.
The issue of jail size was in contention during this election as well. Gusman backed another jail expansion that he said would be dedicated to mental health treatment. Hutson and her supporters, alongside other city officials, wanted to retrofit the current jail facility and release those funds for other programs in the community.
Hutson also made many promises around transparency and accountability. This is sorely needed in New Orleans. As I point out in a story I wrote for Politico, the New Orleans jail is infamous for being dangerous; accounts from the 1800s describe the jail as unsanitary, overrun with rats, and dangerous. In 2008, the jail was considered the most dangerous facility in the country. In 2013, Gusman was forced to enter into a consent decree because of incidents of violence and a lack of medical care. Between 2014 and 2019, 15 people died.
Louisiana does not require sheriffs to track deaths in their jail, so all of the work to name these victims and tell their stories has fallen to outside groups. The prison industrial complex claims many victims, but those who die (or suffer violence and trauma) inside jails rarely have their stories told. Instead, they are simply identified by age and their criminal charges. Everyone inside of the Orleans jail is pretrial, which means they haven’t been convicted; most are there because they cannot afford bail.
It remains to be seen how Hutson will tackle the many challenges before her. In addition to improving jail conditions and the medical care (currently provided by Wellpath), Hutson also has the unenviable job of cleaning up after 17 years of Gusman’s self-interested business deals and contracts. Gusman has NEVER submitted his office to an outside audit, so no one has ever known how much money is being wasted and where. From all outside appearances, Gusman seemed to use his office as a place to launder money, doling out contracts and promises to people in exchange for political favors. Hutson has been clear this is not her jam.
Even if Hutson does clean house by eliminating personnel who are unwilling to change or are corrupt and by ending wasteful contracts, rebuilding the department requires a lot of hard work and commitment. She will need to collect the institutional knowledge that has been held by a few people for nearly two decades, people who have worked without being held accountable to anyone outside of Gusman. She will need to hire sworn and unsworn personnel, which requires an assessment of what the jail needs to keep people safe. She will need to work with the political machinery in New Orleans to accomplish her goals of a smaller, safer jail. And, she will need to remember the community that elected her, a group of people who will continue to provide input and help guide her decision-making.
Accountability doesn’t start or end with elections. The process is slow. Gusman wasn’t ousted in 4 years or even 10. But, all of the battles in between have meaning and lay the groundwork for a bigger change. After an election, incumbents often leave their office a trail of buried secrets and gaps in knowledge. It takes time to enter a new regime and piece together what happened before and what will happen afterward. Engagement is all the more important after the election, which is when the work begins.
As Hutson told her supporters, “You all need to stay in this fight. It's not done, not even close.”
See Incarceration Transparency, which is collecting information on the people who have died in New Orleans’s jails over the past 300 years of incarceration.