New Orleans Weighs Inmate Housing Options

NEW ORLEANS — The lack of specialized housing for inmates with severe mental illness in the soon to be completed Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is the latest point of contention for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) and the city’s mayor. Though the new 433,000-square foot prison will improve significantly on New Orleans’ hurricane-ravaged correctional facilities, it currently does not include a unit for inmates living with acute and sub-acute mental illness. This has prompted Sheriff Marlin Gusman to propose construction of another new correctional facility. 

According to the New Orleans Advocate, despite a recommendation by the mayor’s office to convert a level of the new prison facility, Sheriff Gusman has proposed temporarily housing mentally ill inmates at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, located an hour outside of New Orleans. Relocated inmates could remain at the special needs unit within the St. Gabriel-based facility for up to three years. During that time, the Sheriff’s Office would seek to build a facility better suited to inmates with acute mental health care needs.

Renovations to the Hunt facility, which was originally designed to house inmates with mental health needs, could cost an estimated $500,000. According to a release issued by the Sheriff’s Department, if all parties approve and funding is available, construction of a permanent building could start later this year. Such a facility could be completed as early as fall 2017.

Currently, inmates with more severe mental health needs are held at the city’s Templeman V facility. However, Judge Lance Africk, who has overseen the federal consent decree imposed upon the city of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish Prison since 2013, deemed the facility inadequate.

In his initial 104-page court order, first released in June 2013, Judge Africk called the consent decree directives “nonnegotiable” and added they were the minimum to meet constitutional standards. “The court finds that the proposed consent judgment is the only way to overcome the years of stagnation that have permitted OPP to remain an indelible stain on the community,” Africk wrote, “and it will ensure that OPP inmates are treated in a manner that does not offend contemporary notions of human decency.”

The consent decree mandated a number of reforms at the OPP complex primarily related to training and staffing. However, the facility has also come under scrutiny for management of mentally ill inmates, inmate violence and suicide, sanitation issues and repeated problems with contraband. These issues, which inspired a lawsuit by several inmates, were exacerbated by the fact that jail employees are often poorly trained and poorly compensated.

Prior to construction of the new prison complex, the OSPO maintained offices in a former motel, a former firehouse and in a facility that was built, and re-built, based on a 1920s-era design. However, upon completion of the new correctional complex, the far-flung network of facilities will be condensed into one primary campus, and all structures will upgraded to meet American Correctional Associate codes and standards.

The city’s new Intake Processing Center will included secure holding facilities, medical screening, inmate release, property rooms and two courtrooms. The three-story administrative building nearby will consolidate offices currently located at several different facilities, and a five-story, concrete-framed housing structure will hold an estimated 1,438 inmates. That facility in particular will include 500 double-occupancy cells across 20 housing units. Total building costs have been estimated at $145 million, and Gusman has not yet outlined a funding plan for the proposed mental health facility.