In the fable, the porridge was not too hot and not too cold but just right. We won’t get a Goldilocks result even with the new Orleans Parish Prison.
For the old facility, the deserved criticisms continue to fly. A team of experts that inspected the prison recently said it found conditions largely unchanged from the disarray and understaffing it encountered during its first visit in December.
No one involved in the long march toward improved conditions in the jail likes the sound of that. Improvements were mandated under the federal court’s consent decree almost a year ago. Yet to the extent that Sheriff Marlin Gusman has inched toward compliance with some provisions of the consent decree, the staggering number of inmates who come into the prison with mental issues will remain a problem.
Mental health care is “virtually nonexistent,” a new report to the court said.
Tuesday’s report, filed in U.S. District Court, noted a “sustained level of activity” over the past seven months toward satisfying the agreement, yet it criticized the lack of urgency from Gusman.
We have some sympathy for Gusman’s position. The old prison is a marvel of what has been wrong with jails and public safety for a long time.
The experts probably state the sheriff’s problems as well as he can: “As is often pointed out, the conditions in the Orleans Parish jail system have been decades in the making and will take time to resolve,” the report said. “However, that time means that staff and inmates are in an extremely dangerous and unsafe environment every day.”
This situation may well improve when the new prison is opened for business. It is designed to allow for more efficient operation as well as a safer environment. We see its success as more of a test for Gusman than the improvements, however much needed and however hard as they have been to achieve, with the old prison.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group, in its new report supports Gusman’s proposal to build a new multimillion-dollar jail in New Orleans, saying the additional facility will be needed to forestall a public safety crisis even after completion of the new 1,438-bed lockup.
Yet the reality is that while the dilapidated old prison is slated to be closed, the 500 beds of the post-Hurricane Katrina temporary detention center will almost certainly remain open — at least for 18 months — to take in any overflows.
This is the Goldilocks problem, and there probably isn’t any right answer because it will take time to get the recipe right.
Reforms in pretrial diversion and other options to imprisonment are valuable, and Goldilocks wants to make that part of the recipe, but that too will take a lot of time to make just right. Three-quarters of inmates are charged with felonies, most of those with violent offenses or firearms charges, the MCC report said; sorting out those who can be sent home or monitored away from jail is as Herculean a task as the many others on the city’s crime-prevention list.
What’s the “right-sized” jail that Mayor Mitch Landrieu and members of the City Council want to see? A council resolution opposed Gusman’s plan to construct a so-called Phase III jail and urged him instead to reduce the prison’s population by transferring several hundred state prisoners and Plaquemines Parish inmates out of OPP.
Those options, or issues, also have been on the back-burner for a long time. Every option costs operating money.
We are far from the just-right number. And we probably won’t know what it is until we see the impact of the closing of much of the old and unlamented prison buildings early next year.