NEW ORLEANS - It's one of the most hotly contested races in Orleans Parish, and Thursday night, candidates in the sheriff's race are speaking out.
Hundreds gathered at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church for a forum hosted by the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.
Moderator James Perry, of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center, asked questions ranging from addressing violence at the prison to enforcing the federal consent decree.
Incumbent Marlin Gusman said he's reduced the inmate population from about 6,000 to about 2,000 in the 10 years since he was elected through partnerships in the criminal justice system, and said he nearly doubled pay for deputies.
But he's also been the subject of scandal. A video introduced into evidence in federal court appears to show inmates guzzling beer, using drugs, holding a loaded gun and handling money and dice.
A federal court has ordered sweeping changes in a consent decree. Gusman said he's not to blame.
There were over 600 inmate transports to the emergency room related to violence in 2012, compared with 70 in Memphis in the same time period, said Perry.
Violence, escape and death are all too common. Several families who had lost loved ones in Orleans Parish Prison attended the forum.
“There were a lot of problems under the previous sheriff's leadership, Katrina has really dealt all of us a tough blow,” Gusman said. “It was a difficult journey for us to transform the prison complex into a modern state of the art facility. There have been some difficult times. I regret any loss of life, but we are affected just like the families are affected.”
Charles Foti served as sheriff for 30 years before Gusman was elected. He said there was never this level of violence under his leadership and that he wants his old job back because of conditions that exist inside the prison.
He supports rehabilitating inmates to curb recidivism and more transparency.
“It is too much to ask for us to keep the same conditions going on where inmates are brutalized and there are gang rapes and sexual attacks and there's limited investigation,” Foti said.
Candidate Ira Thomas worked to separate himself from the previous sheriffs. He is a school board member and chief of police at Southern University of New Orleans. He served in the NOPD for 28 years. He supports effective rehabilitation programs, better mental health services for inmates and better training for deputies.
“The evidence is overwhelming that this jail is dysfunctional, we've got to gut it, we've got to train personnel, we've got to reevaluate the jail,” said Thomas.
Both Thomas and Foti suggested posting the sheriff’s budget and fiscal records to the web to improve transparency.
Quentin Brown owns a lawn care business and has previously run for several offices. He wants to put more deputies on the street to help the NOPD.
“I'm a concerned citizen. I'm tired of seeing the city being neglected,” said Brown.
Early voting begins Saturday, and the election will be held Feb. 1.