After weeks of closed-door discussions, a federal judge Wednesday made public a report that revealed a wide gulf of differences between Sheriff Marlin Gusman and city leaders over the future of Orleans Parish Prison, including several points of disagreement over how to satisfy the mental health provisions of a court-ordered plan for jail reform at a time of financial uncertainty.
The 10-page report, submitted jointly by the city and sheriff, offered a glimpse of the stand-off on a day that attorneys had been expected to provide an update in open court but did most of their talking privately in U.S. District Judge Lance Africk’s chambers.
Gusman made a rare appearance at the court but left without comment, descending the elevator in silence and refusing to answer questions about his disputes with the city.
According to the report, Gusman is asking the city to use hurricane recovery funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to construct another multimillion-dollar jail facility — a building that, unlike the $145 million jail being built now, could accommodate severely mentally ill inmates. Gusman has not provided an estimated price tag for the facility, however, and his attorney, Blake Arcuri, said he doesn’t know what the building might cost.
“The sheriff doesn’t have to pay for it,” Arcuri said after leaving Africk’s courtroom. “The city has to build a jail under the law.”
City officials would rather retrofit the new 1,438-bed jail, expected to open later this year, so it would include a mental health clinic on its fourth floor — a move they portray as a much cheaper solution that’s in keeping with a long-term goal of reducing the city’s inmate population.
Gusman has refused to discuss his plans publicly. But the report, entered into the court record at the behest of the news media, summarized the sheriff’s opposition to such a renovation, saying Gusman has questioned whether construction on the fourth floor would disrupt operations at the new jail and require closure of its third floor.
An unnamed city consultant counters that there would be “little to no impact” on the new jail’s operations, the report says, while Gusman’s design and construction team disputes that.
It remains unclear how many FEMA dollars are available — Hurricane Katrina recovery funds were used to build the jail facility being completed now — and city officials said in the report that “any FEMA funds (remaining) should be used to fund other projects authorized by the Law Enforcement District.” Those projects are not identified in the report.
Asked how much FEMA money remains at the city’s disposal, Tyler Gamble, a city spokesman, said city officials are “continuing to work with FEMA to determine what FEMA funds are available for any construction related to the jail.”
State law requires the city to foot the bill for the care of its inmates, and the sheriff has long been at odds with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration over the expensive jail reforms and scores of new hires mandated by a federal consent decree that took effect in October. The decree, an agreement reached with the U.S. Department of Justice after some inmates sued over their treatment at OPP, seeks to reverse the jail’s unconstitutional conditions and protect inmates from violence and sexual assaults.
The decree also included several mental health provisions, and the latest impasse between Gusman and the Landrieu administration centers around short- and long-term accommodations for special needs inmates, the relatively small populations who require specialized treatment and a suicide-resistant environment. The decree required Gusman to implement counseling services and comprehensive treatment plans for inmates suffering from serious mental illness, and the sheriff has not reached full compliance with those provisions.
In approving the consent decree last year, Africk said mentally ill inmates had been held in “deplorable” conditions. He has also determined that acutely mentally ill inmates should no longer be held at Templeman V — the facility currently housing them — because it is ill-suited to meet their supervision needs.
But the report made public Wednesday shows that Gusman is proposing a $4 million renovation to a single floor of the Templeman V building to house a small population of female inmates who require “acute and sub-acute” mental health services. That renovation would apparently be made for fewer than a dozen inmates, as a spokesman for Gusman said the jail, at any given time, has only eight to 10 female inmates classified as “acute or sub-acute mental health inmates.”
City officials appear to have rejected that part of Gusman’s plan outright, and Landrieu’s attorneys emerged from the judge’s chambers Wednesday discussing the $4 million sum loudly enough to be heard from the gallery.
“In light of the court’s concern regarding the use of Templeman V and the substantial amount of money estimated to renovate a single floor of a building that will only provide temporary housing, the city is unable to agree to this renovation at this time,” the joint report said.
Under Gusman’s plan, the Sheriff’s Office would house up to 44 male special needs inmates at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state prison in St. Gabriel, for three years while a new permanent building for them is constructed in New Orleans. The part of the state prison that would be leased requires modifications and repairs that Gusman estimates will cost between $500,000 and $1 million.
The parties planned to travel to St. Gabriel on Wednesday afternoon, according to court records, “to view the facility and assess any work that would be required.”
“As the facility was recently constructed, the city is hoping to identify what work would require an expenditure of such magnitude,” attorneys said in the memo.
Even more money would be needed for “medical transport units” that would be needed to shuttle inmates at St. Gabriel to and from court in Orleans Parish — an hour’s drive or more each way. Inmate advocates and the Orleans Public Defender’s Office also have raised concerns about defense attorneys’ access to those inmates. “The sheriff maintains that it is the responsibility of the city to pay the salaries of all additional staff hired by (the Department of Corrections) for all hours worked supervising city inmates at Hunt,” the report says.
To accommodate the jail’s “sub-acute male mental health population,” meanwhile, Gusman is proposing a $500,000 renovation of the Temporary Detention Center — another OPP facility that the city has suggested using as an overflow building for the general inmate population. According to the report, that renovation would house “26 male sub-acute and 27 male step-down beds.”
“The city has not agreed to this renovation,” the report says.
Africk has scheduled a hearing July 14 to address the mental health provisions of the consent decree.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.