Amid mounting controversy over the size of New Orleans’ new jail, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has appealed to Gov. Bobby Jindal to remove several hundred state prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison, a move the mayor contends will save tens of millions of dollars and avert the need for the city to build additional jail space.
Landrieu, in a letter dated Thursday, complained that OPP has been “warehousing hundreds of extra state inmates and prisoners from other parishes” who aren’t required to be jailed in New Orleans. In underlined type, he asked that the Department of Corrections “take immediate steps” to remove the approximately 380 state prisoners currently housed at OPP, saying it’s clear the Sheriff’s Office “needs to dedicate all its energy and resources” to local inmates.
Landrieu, who remains at odds with Sheriff Marlin Gusman over the prudence of constructing a so-called Phase III jail addition, wrote that any expansion of the local inmate capacity “would be especially wasteful” in light of the untapped space at the soon-to-be-open Plaquemines Parish Detention Center, where authorities are planning to mothball two of the new facility’s three housing wings and to use only 100 of its 871 beds.
Like the 1,438-bed jail Gusman is preparing to open soon, the new jail in Pointe à la Hache was built with hurricane recovery dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But unlike its predecessor, which was inundated by Hurricane Katrina, the new Plaquemines Parish facility is not expected to house hundreds of federal and state prisoners. Indeed, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said earlier this month that the state has no plans to send additional state prisoners to Plaquemines Parish.
“Government should be efficient, as small as possible, and spend the public’s money wisely,” Landrieu wrote in his letter. “We don’t want to waste even a dollar of taxpayer funds on a bigger, unneeded prison, especially since every dollar spent on the jail can’t be invested in things that will actually make New Orleans safer, like hiring more officers for community policing.”
The one-page letter, which was copied to the local legislative delegation but not to the Sheriff’s Office, underscored the growing frustration Landrieu has expressed over his lack of control over the jail despite the city’s legal obligation to pay for the care of inmates. The city’s attorneys have explored possible legal actions they could take to try to force Gusman’s hand at reducing the number of state prisoners, whose housing costs are paid for by the state, but the mayor’s written plea to Jindal seemed to carry more than a whiff of desperation as the city has reached a critical crossroads in the long-running jail debate.
State Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, speaking on behalf of the Jindal administration, said Friday that officials would review Landrieu’s request, adding that the mayor “should work with the sheriff on this local issue.” He echoed a familiar Gusman refrain, noting in a written statement that many of the state prisoners here are completing work-release, re-entry and community service programs, initiatives that are intended to reduce recidivism.
“Since 2011, the Department of Corrections has already reduced the state inmate population housed at Orleans Parish Prison from 1,020 to 349,” LeBlanc said. “We will continue to provide transitional services for those returning to the community, and we will continue working to reduce the state inmate population housed at OPP to maintain public safety throughout our state.”
Landrieu’s letter seemed to strike a nerve with Gusman, who on Friday called the request “misguided.” If granted, he said, it would have “immediate adverse effects” on a “well-established and successful re-entry program” that saves the city money in the long run.
He added that state prisoners working in the jail’s kitchen also keep down the cost of meals at the jail, which he said would increase from less than $1 per meal to more than $1.75 if state prisoners were stripped from the kitchen staff. State prisoners also perform a host of community services, Gusman added, ranging from picking up trash after football games and Mardi Gras parades to even assisting the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office in death investigations.
“I caution the mayor about being penny-wise at the expense of good public policy,” Gusman wrote in a letter to The New Orleans Advocate. “It would be folly to eliminate such a cost-effective program and ask taxpayers to pick up the tab at a time when the mayor and other city officials consistently state that the city can ill afford its current obligations.”
Even if the state withdrew all of its prisoners from New Orleans, and the 70 Plaquemines Parish inmates housed at OPP were moved to another facility, Gusman maintains there still wouldn’t be enough space in the city’s new jail to accommodate the local inmate population without keeping at least part of the existing jail open. The sheriff has long blamed his dilapidated facilities for the expensive federal consent decree signed last year with the U.S. Department of Justice, an agreement that requires sweeping changes in how inmates are housed and treated in New Orleans.
OPP was housing 2,167 inmates as of Friday, including 381 state prisoners, said Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman. The new $145 million jail on Perdido Street, which Gusman expects to open in January, has 1,438 beds, but its functional capacity will be closer to 1,295 beds — or even fewer — as some cell space inevitably is lost through special housing assignments and the need to segregate certain inmate populations.
Landrieu has been involved in the jail discussion for months, having vigorously resisted the signing of the OPP consent decree and pushed for the jail instead to be put in federal receivership. Sheriff’s Office and city officials have repeatedly butted heads in federal court over how to best implement the court-ordered jail reforms, with the Landrieu administration pushing for the most affordable alternatives and accusing the sheriff of being fiscally irresponsible.
One of the most notable points of disagreement has been over how to satisfy the consent decree’s mental health care provisions, which call for drastic changes from past conditions deemed unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, the jurist presiding over the jail litigation. The city lost the first round of the battle this summer when Africk sided with the sheriff’s proposal to house severely mentally ill inmates at a state prison facility in St. Gabriel for up to three years.
In the long term, Gusman has advocated the construction of a multimillion-dollar jail addition that would accommodate so-called special-needs populations of inmates and round out a corrections complex he has called the Orleans Parish Correctional Center. The project’s price tag would range from $56 million to $97 million, according to court documents, depending upon the number of floors the building has. Under the sheriff’s proposal, the building would have between 380 and 764 beds — a number city officials vehemently reject as too high.
The city’s counterproposal calls for a $6 million retrofit of the new 1,438-bed jail to equip it with a medical and mental health unit, a move that would also reduce its capacity by some 88 beds. Under that plan, the Temporary Detention Center, a 500-bed facility built after Hurricane Katrina, would remain open indefinitely as the city seeks to reduce its jail population through reforms to the criminal justice system.
The question of how large New Orleans’ jail should be continues to divide the community. The City Council has taken a unanimous stance against building a Phase III building, while the Metropolitan Crime Commission recently warned that failure to begin construction immediately could lead to a public safety crisis.
Last week, Gusman’s proposal won the unanimous backing of the so-called Mental Health Working Group, a committee of experts tasked by Africk with determining the best way to provide mental health services at the jail. In a report filed in U.S. District Court, the group voiced concern about the uncertainty of how many inmates in New Orleans may actually be in need of psychiatric care and specialized supervision, particularly in the wake of an unparalleled disaster like Katrina.
It’s unclear how much weight the group’s recommendation will have with Africk, who may have to decide himself how large New Orleans’ jail must be to comply with the consent decree if no political agreement is reached soon. The plaintiffs in the consent decree litigation, a group of inmates who sued the sheriff over the jail’s abysmal conditions, have indicated they may soon seek to hold the sheriff in contempt of the consent decree because the vast majority of its requirements remain unfulfilled and inmates remain at risk.
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