In an about-face, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration backed away Thursday from a legal challenge to the design of the 1,438-bed Orleans Parish Prison building now under construction, saying the city was satisfied — at least for now — that the new lockup will be able to accommodate special-needs inmates as required by law.
City Attorney Sharonda Williams told Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese that the city decided to withdraw its objections after Sheriff Marlin Gusman presented a breakdown outlining where certain groups of inmates would be housed inside the $145 million facility.
The move marked an abrupt reversal for city leaders, who had contended the jail was not equipped to house certain inmate populations and who last month issued a stop-work order on construction in an effort to force the sheriff into making last-minute renovations.
The Landrieu administration, in issuing the stop-work order, accused the sheriff of “flagrant violations” of the ordinance authorizing the building’s construction, claiming the jail had not been designed to house groups of inmates who must be separated from the general population, such as women, juvenile offenders and inmates with substance-abuse issues.
On Thursday, after more than an hour of private discussions with Sheriff’s Office attorneys, city officials said they no longer objected to construction continuing on the nearly completed jail.
“They have provided us a document that represents that the (new jail) has been designed to accommodate all of the special populations, and they have set forth a housing plan showing where the special populations will be housed in that facility,” Williams said, referring to the Sheriff’s Office.
Even as the latest standoff ended, the Sheriff’s Office and City Hall failed to resolve other pressing issues surrounding the future of Orleans Parish Prison, including a heated debate about the need for another multimillion-dollar building that would be dedicated to inmates requiring specialized housing and treatment.
Landrieu opposes the construction of such a facility, in large part because of its price tag, while Gusman insists it’s needed for the Sheriff’s Office to meet the demands of a court-ordered plan to reform the jail.
Although Gusman says the 1,438-bed jail can handle all types of prisoners, he says they could be better accommodated in a building specially designed for them. He also says the additional building is needed because of the sheer number of inmates, now at about 1,860, including several hundred state prisoners.
City leaders have claimed they will be able to reduce New Orleans’ high inmate population to a number low enough for Gusman to close certain overflow facilities at the jail, whose conditions have been deemed unconstitutional.
The long-running feud, fueled by an increasingly expensive federal consent decree, spilled into Reese’s courtroom last month, when the judge suspended the stop-work order, citing concerns over construction delays. While city leaders for months had voiced concerns over the design of the jail, they did not halt construction until Gusman submitted an $84 million request to the city seeking capital funds for a special-needs jail building, a project commonly referred to as “Phase III.”
That request, Williams said, “solidified the notion” that Gusman intended to move forward with those plans at any cost, even as the two sides continued to negotiate.
State law requires the city to pay for the care of inmates, but the Landrieu administration has accused Gusman of abusing that requirement by spending without regard for the city’s limited resources.
While the Sheriff’s Office was quick to claim vindication Thursday, Landrieu released a statement portraying the developments as a victory for taxpayers.
“I’m relieved that the sheriff has finally shared a plan to house all inmates at the new jail under construction, and that he has formally withdrawn his $84 million capital outlay request to build a third jail building,” Landrieu said. “These new developments will help New Orleans save taxpayers money and run a safe and constitutional jail.”
Blake Arcuri, an attorney for Gusman, said the Sheriff’s Office withdrew its capital outlay request three weeks ago, an action he said was unrelated to Thursday’s discussions. The sheriff, he added, remains committed to building a Phase III facility.
In an interview after the court hearing, Williams said that, despite months of back-and-forth, the city until this week had “never received any indication” from the Sheriff’s Office that the 1,438-bed jail would be used for all types of inmates — an assertion Gusman’s lawyers flatly denied.
“We’re proceeding forward as we were before this stop-work order was ever issued because we have always been able to accommodate all special populations, as contemplated by (city) ordinance,” Arcuri said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office plans to begin moving inmates into the new facility as early as mid-August.
Arcuri said he believes the city withdrew its legal challenge at the last minute because it realized it would lose the case on its merits. The city last month filed a “petition for writ of mandamus” asking Reese to force Gusman’s hand into complying with the city ordinance requiring that the jail be built to house all populations of inmates.
“We’re not changing any designs” of the jail, Arcuri added. “We gave up nothing.”
Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, noted that Reese has yet to rule on a motion filed by Gusman’s attorneys asking that city officials be held in contempt of court for interfering with the jail construction.
“The Sheriff’s Office will continue to pursue recovery of financial losses incurred by contractors from the city of New Orleans,” Gusman said in a statement.
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