Debate Surrounding Orleans Parish Prison Continues

NEW ORLEANS — The third phase of a new inmate housing facility, part of the New Orleans Parish Prison, will soon be constructed on a piece of land owned by the City of New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently agreed to the construction project, which will house women, youths, sick and mentally ill inmates. This new housing center will help keep these inmates separate from those contained at the Orleans Parish Prison.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has $50 million of unused funds available to help support the project, but the responsibility for funding the construction work may ultimately fall to Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Gusman is striving for the construction this phase of the project to take place on a piece of land between the two sheriff’s office facilities under construction for Phases I and II.

The first phase involves the construction of a new building including a kitchen, warehouse, electrical generators and office space. This building, which cost $70 million, is slated to open in the fall of 2013.

The second phase of the project is an intake processing center and jail. It contains 1,438 beds and is slated to open in 2014. The total cost for Phase II is $145 million.

In addition to the mental health and special needs center planned for the third phase of the project, this new building would also include laundry facilities and enough space to house 600 additional beds for designated inmates.

This positive step forward in the progress of Phase III demonstrates a long-awaited agreement between Landrieu and Gusman, who have been debating the costs of the court-mandated changes to New Orleans’ correctional system since January. The goal of the court order is to bring the prison facilities and operations to constitutional standards after years of violence, suicide and rape.

The joint filing — agreeing to the third phase of the project — was signed by a New Orleans city representative, a representative from the sheriff’s office, and co-plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit that initially led to the court’s decree for the parish facility.

In addition to the agreement to begin planning the third building on the complex, the court filing also involved Landrieu deciding to ask the City Council for permission to continue construction on the second phase of the prison project. Construction stopped after the city issued an ordinance in 2011 pausing work due to insufficient housing specifications for the Phase II facility. The City Council’s order stated that the housing facility was supposed to be designed to accommodate all inmates, including women and sick inmates, without exceeding 1,438 beds.

Although the mayor is displeased that the ordinance wasn’t followed, he also recognized the need to provide a suitable solution to house all the Parish’s inmates in safe and appropriate facilities. Although current plans suggest that the third facility will have up to 600 beds, the mayor hopes to decrease the city’s inmate population enough to only require 120 beds for inmates requiring medical care.

The city council will be in charge of approving both the number of beds in the Phase III project and the total cost of the project. Discussion of the project is set to continue on Sept. 30.