New Orleans Debates Over Phase III Jail Addition

NEW ORLEANS — Less than two weeks after opening a new $150 million jail in New Orleans last month, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to okay construction on another facility that would bring even more inmate beds to the city. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu opposes the proposal and its multimillion-dollar price tag because it contradicts the administration’s efforts to reduce the city’s high incarceration rate.

The $150 million jail already received flak earlier this summer when construction was temporarily put on hold by Mayor Landrieu’s administration, which accused Gusman of multiple city code violations and failure to construct a facility that met the needs of inmates who required medical and mental health services. The new jail was built to house a total of 1,438 inmates that have been held in makeshift facilities since Hurricane Katrina as well as consolidate and centralize administrative and sheriff’s facilities spread throughout the parish.

The additional jail facility, referred to as a Phase III facility, would house mentally ill inmates and other inmates who must be separated from the general jail population. Gusman argues that the facility would satisfy the demands of the sweeping federal consent decree that he signed in 2013 with the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of inmates who filed suit over poor conditions in the New Orleans jail, reported the New Orleans Advocate.

The sheriff’s attorneys asked Africk to hold city officials in contempt of court for their “efforts to frustrate” Gusman’s compliance with the consent decree, according to recent court papers. Gusman also filed two lawsuits against Landrieu demanding additional funding from the city to pay for raises for his deputies. The sheriff has long accused Landrieu of underfunding the increasingly expensive operations at the city’s jail, according to the New Orleans Advocate. This debate between the sheriff — who runs the jail — and City Hall — which is required to pay for local inmates’ care — has continued for years.

Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee in September that the city objects to Gusman’s budget demands mainly because the sheriff refuses to return several-hundred state inmates being housed in New Orleans. Those inmates have remained in New Orleans even after Gusman transferred about 250 pretrial inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana, saying they would not fit into the new 1,438-bed jail, reported the New Orleans Advocate. The sheriff, however, said he has no intention of removing the state inmates because they have been successful in a regional re-entry program he is running for the state that he says is reducing recidivism rates.

In federal court, Gusman’s attorneys are asking for construction of the Phase III jail project, which could cost between $56 million and $97 million and would sit between the recently opened jail and the sheriff’s new kitchen and warehouse facility. The city has acknowledged it has tens of millions of dollars in hurricane recovery dollars set aside for public-safety projects that potentially could be used to build a Phase III facility. The Landrieu administration, however, continues to argue that the sheriff has sufficient jail space for the city’s about 1,500 pretrial detainees, especially if the sheriff removes state inmates from his facility and since the administration plans to aggressively curb the city’s inmate population as part of a broader strategy to reform the local criminal justice system, according to the New Orleans Advocate.