When the city’s new jail opened in mid-September, Sheriff Marlin Gusman took pains to distinguish the $150 million complex from its ignominious predecessor, declaring at a news conference that “Orleans Parish Prison — OPP — is closed forever.”
The sheriff scrapped plans for a procession intended to lay to rest an era in which OPP for decades ranked among the most violent and dysfunctional lockups in the country. He promised a more formal ceremony would soon follow, if for no other reason than to announce the official name of the new 1,438-bed structure.
Seven weeks after inmates moved in, however, the gleaming new facility on Perdido Street has become a jail of conflicting names, creating confusion in the criminal justice community as the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office settles into its new digs.
Most police officers call it “central lockup,” while some lawyers still refer to the jail as OPP, out of habit.
There are indications — in booking records and on the Sheriff’s Office website — that Gusman decided, at least for a time, to call the lockup the “Ortique Justice Center,” an apparent reference to Revius Ortique Jr., the New Orleans civil rights giant who served as the first black justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
If that’s the case, it’s news to the Ortique family.
“I don’t know anything about this,” Ortique’s widow, Miriam, said by phone Tuesday.
One of Ortique’s grandchildren said he also had heard nothing from the sheriff and declined to comment.
On Tuesday afternoon, after The New Orleans Advocate’s most recent inquiries, the Sheriff’s Office removed one of the references to “Ortique Justice Center” that accompanied an online listing of attorney visitation hours, replacing it with “Orleans Justice Center.” However, the sheriff’s online booking records still listed inmates as being housed at “OJC Ortique Justice Center.”
A veteran and widely known activist and later jurist who died in 2008, Ortique was celebrated as a champion of racial equality who fought to integrate labor unions and desegregate public places. His list of accomplishments included serving as president of the National Bar Association and the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.
Dillard University, Ortique’s alma mater, named an annual lecture series and mock trial center after him, while the Louisiana Supreme Court honored him with a portrait.
Naming a jail after Ortique could prove a dicier proposition, though, particularly in a city with a history of civil rights abuses behind bars and a notoriously high incarceration rate.
Gusman has struggled to implement a series of court-ordered reforms that followed a federal judge’s finding that conditions at OPP were unconstitutional.
Asked what visitors to the Sheriff’s Office website should make of the references to Ortique, Gusman’s spokesman, Philip Stelly, said, “It’s not yet clear.”
The sheriff has referred to the new jail merely as “New Inmate Housing,” Stelly added, even as deputies assigned to the building have identified it as the “Orleans Justice Complex” in official accounts of assaults and other jailhouse misconduct.
Further muddying the waters is a series of court filings outlining the sheriff’s plans to build another multimillion-dollar housing facility adjacent to the new jail — documents that describe Gusman’s collective physical plant as the “Orleans Parish Correctional Center.”
For his part, Stelly wrote in an email last month that he has erred on the somewhat generic side of “new jail,” at least for the time being.
“Despite allusions to the contrary, I will continue to refer to (the facility as) the ‘new jail,’ ” he wrote at the time, “because it is just that.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.