The New Orleans City Council on Thursday advanced a plan that calls for the construction of a new, 89-bed facility for mentally ill inmates at the parish jail, but it attached a requirement that could lead to elimination of the same number of beds in the existing lockup.
The proposal came as something of a compromise between council members who support the new building and those who would prefer to retrofit the existing 1,438-bed Orleans Justice Center to accommodate inmates with serious mental problems.
Councilman Jason Williams, the most vocal proponent of moving forward with a new building, said the facility is necessary to properly house those with mental illnesses.
Many of those inmates are now sent to the state's Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, distancing them from their support systems and exacerbating issues they are dealing with, Williams said.
"We have an obligation to take care of inmates who ... we are responsible for, who are not being treated humanely," Williams said.
Dozens of activists who are opposed to increasing the size of the jail spoke before the council, arguing that the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office has failed to demonstrate it can handle the inmates already in its care.
"I cannot believe we're going to consider expanding the number of people this jail is responsible for," said Flozell Daniels, head of the nonprofit Foundation for Louisiana.
There were 1,484 inmates in custody on Wednesday, including those with mental or physical health needs and those housed in other parishes, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office.
Long opposed to constructing a third jail building, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has warmed to the idea in recent months since Gary Maynard, the jail’s new court-ordered compliance director, has agreed to keep the facility to 89 beds and to use it only for inmates with mental health issues.
The council voted 5-1 for the compromise plan, with Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell in opposition. Councilwoman Stacy Head was absent.
Cantrell said she wanted more discussion on the issue. "Here we are talking about only one option when we owe it to our people to look at all options," she said.
The measure moves consideration of plans for the jail's so-called Phase III building to the City Planning Commission.
Whether a new building is needed has long been a source of dispute between City Hall and Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who initially wanted the new facility to include 388 beds.
The Planning Commission's approval is necessary to build the facility.
The New Orleans City Council is set to vote Thursday on two competing proposals that will se…
Before the vote, Cantrell and Councilwoman Susan Guidry proposed an alternative motion that would have required the City Planning Commission to study both ideas: constructing the new facility and retrofitting the existing jail.
The measure never came up for a vote, but Guidry succeeded in amending the one that did to instruct the Planning Commission to study the idea of reducing the number of beds in the 2-year-old, 1,438-bed building by 89, so as to keep the overall number of beds the same. That amendment passed 6-0.
Guidry argued that adding a new facility would increase the incentive to use the jail as a way of dealing with the mentally ill.
"If you think we don’t have people going to jail because they’re mentally ill, you just haven’t found out the facts," she said.