New Orleans — Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson last week became the first city official in New Orleans to publicly endorse a controversial new facility that would add up to 600 additional beds to the new Orleans Parish jail complex under construction.

Clarkson’s backing came Wednesday during a meeting of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman was at City Hall to update the committee on progress on current construction, including a kitchen and warehouse facility, and a 1,438-bed jail, as well as future plans for a new building and possible renovations.

The council in 2011 approved the 1,438-bed facility, and the ordinance approving it said the jail would be used to house all prisoners except for the acutely mentally ill.

Gusman noted that even as old jail buildings were being closed and new ones coming on line, a number of needs remain unaddressed:

  • Jail space for the acutely mentally ill;
  • A primary medical and dental unit;
  • A centralized laundry;
  • Space for re-entry programs;
  • Housing for community service inmates;
  • Space for family visits.

Designs from the architecture firm Grace & Hebert show that the proposed third building includes space for each of the unaddressed needs.

“We have to have another building for acute mental health,” Clarkson said.

Clarkson offered her endorsement after Gusman told the committee that the FEMA-funded third building had been part of the original, post-Katrina rebuilding plan at the Orleans Parish jail complex.

Gusman was asked by committee Chairwoman Susan Guidry to explain how it was that he and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin had been discussing details about the third facility last year without the knowledge of the City Council.

Guidry said a report in The Lens on the proposed facility was the first she’d heard of it.

“We’ve had conceptual discussions, but not firm talk” about the new jail, Gusman responded.

Letters obtained last year by The Lens between Kopplin and Gusman indicate that those discussions included specific bed-count numbers for the new facility, even as they were making public pledges to not expand beyond a council-approved 1,438.

At the time, Kopplin did hedge his public pledge, made before a group of religious leaders in April, with the caveat that the city might want to explore the option of adding more beds for state prisoners enrolled in re-entry programs.

A letter from May of last year from Gusman to Kopplin said the proposed jail would have 106 medical beds; 164 mental-health beds; 256 re-entry beds; and 128 minimum-custody beds.

The 1,438 number has become a line in the sand for criminal justice advocates in New Orleans, who have repeatedly demanded that the city not eclipse that bed count number under any circumstance.

The decision to cap the bed count at 1,438 came after two years of penal hand-wringing by the Landrieu administration, which put together a Criminal Justice Working Group and brought in outside firepower in the form of criminologist James Austin — the man responsible for the 1,438 number.

But in accepting Austin’s recommendation and writing its ordinance based on it, Gusman said the city was also was accepting Austin’s caveat that the “functional capacity” of the new jail would actually be 1,284 beds.

Current prison best practices call for a 10 percent cushion, Gusman said.

The prisoner count at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday was 2,231, Gusman said.

It’s an open question whether a jail population that has dropped from an average daily inmate count of 6,288 in 2005 will drop further to 1,284 by February, when the new jail facility will open and all others are scheduled to be phased out.

Gusman told Guidry he could accommodate the unaddressed needs by renovating other buildings. But, he said, “You asked me to come here to talk about future construction.”

Jail architect Gerald Hebert was on hand for the committee meeting and said the city was missing out on a huge opportunity to have the federal government pay for a building that would contain space dedicated to prisoners with medical and acute mental health issues.

The jail being built contains small satellite medical units on each floor, but no centralized medical facility.

That third building had been awkwardly edited out of previous drawings Gusman gave to the council. Gusman once famously quipped that the lot could be as green space.

And again on Wednesday, a photocopied packet of materials provided by Gusman contains a diagram that hides the building behind a big square block.

“Let’s talk about that big square in the middle,” Guidry said.

Guidry acknowledged that the council “excluded space for the acutely mentally ill in the ordinance. We need to provide for that.”

In an email to The Lens on Friday, Guidry said she was going along with Gusman’s assertion that “any discussion of a third facility is strictly theoretical at this point.”

She added that if plans were developed for the building, that they’d be reviewed by the Criminal Justice Working Group and the City Planning Commission before coming to a vote at the council.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the administration had consistently taken the position that more work needed to be done to determine whether the 1,438 figure was adequate to the city’s needs.

“We offered the sheriff the opportunity to present his proposal for additional beds to the working group last summer so it could be evaluated, and that offer still stands,” Berni said in an email.

This story is published in cooperation with the Internet news site The Lens,