Like a detailed blueprint, the court-ordered plan to overhaul Orleans Parish Prison outlines a list of policy changes intended to upgrade conditions at the notorious lockup. The federal consent decree, as the landmark agreement is known, is so meticulous in some respects that it requires the replacement of “malfunctioning lighting fixtures” within five days, “unless the item must be specially ordered.”
But one gaping unknown, unmentioned in the decree’s 53 pages, is how large New Orleans’ jail should be after facilities decimated by Hurricane Katrina are replaced — a contentious question that remains unanswered after years of debate and the construction of a new $145 million jail on Perdido Street.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and the inmates who sued Sheriff Marlin Gusman over conditions at OPP considered the size of the jail a political decision, however fraught, that should be resolved outside of court.
Given the deepening rift between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration over how to pay for the jail reform, a consensus on how many inmate beds the city needs appears more elusive today than it did four years ago when the community engaged in a vigorous debate about New Orleans’ historically high incarceration rate.
That discussion, which pitted public-safety concerns against a clamor for criminal-justice reform, has been rekindled this summer in federal court, with Gusman insisting he needs to build another new jail, referred to for years as a “Phase III” facility, to house special-needs inmates and complete the corrections complex he has long envisioned.
City officials, who by law must pay for inmates’ care, oppose the idea, not only for financial reasons but also out of concern that New Orleans for too long has jailed a disproportionate percentage of its residents compared with other cities. Their counterproposal calls for retrofitting the 1,438-bed jail building nearing completion to include a medical and mental unit, thus limiting the total number of prisoners, and to reduce the inmate count by returning several hundred state prisoners to the Department of Corrections.
The prospect of further construction raises questions about the planning that went into the new jail — a structure known as “Phase II” that’s scheduled to open in January after many months of delays — and how New Orleans ended up with a new facility that city officials and inmate advocates claim is sorely lacking.
Even Gusman’s biggest critics concede the 1,438-bed jail offers a new beginning for OPP, introducing a modern correctional philosophy known as direct supervision that’s expected to reduce violence and improve relations between deputies and inmates. But the new jail, funded largely by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is seen as grossly inadequate by city officials, who claim Gusman ignored city law by failing to ensure the 433,409-square-foot building can accommodate all populations of inmates.
The sheriff maintains the jail can house any type of inmate with the exception of the acutely mentally ill, who were specifically exempted from the city ordinance authorizing the jail’s construction. “It can accommodate any type of inmate,” Gusman said.
The building’s only deficiency, he added, is its inability to fit all of the city’s approximately 2,100 inmates, a population that has dropped significantly in recent years but remains above the national average for cities the size of New Orleans. The jail’s functional capacity will be around 1,295 beds, as some cell space is lost through special housing assignments and the need to segregate certain inmates.
“You can’t fit a size 10½ into an 8½,” Gusman said.
A continuing impasse
The conflicting viewpoints — whether the new jail is a boon or a boondoggle — underscore a continuing impasse between Gusman and the Landrieu administration. As the two sides continue to bicker over funding, it seems increasingly likely that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the consent-decree litigation, will be asked to decide whether the city needs another multimillion-dollar facility to satisfy the decree’s mental health provisions, which became effective in October.
Africk already has made clear that something must change, and quickly, with respect to where the Sheriff’s Office houses mentally ill inmates. They’re currently housed in a dilapidated facility known as Templeman V, which Africk and court-appointed experts have deemed unsuitable in part because poor sight lines mean deputies can’t see many inmates.
Under Gusman’s proposal, the Phase III jail would cost between $56 million and $97 million and contain between 380 and 764 beds. Funding remains sketchy, though Sheriff’s Office officials have vaguely said FEMA dollars would be used for the construction. That price tag doesn’t include renovations of a state prison facility in St. Gabriel, where Gusman has proposed relocating a few dozen mentally ill inmates for up to three years while Phase III is being built.
City officials, meanwhile, say their proposed retrofit of the 1,438-bed jail to handle inmates with medical needs would reduce its total bed capacity by about 88 beds, cost roughly $6 million and take less than a year to complete.
While the Temporary Detention Center would remain open indefinitely for overflow housing, the plaintiffs in the consent decree proceedings noted last week that the city’s plan is “heavily reliant on a drastic reduction in the jail population.”
“Adoption of the city’s plan requires serious and expedited movement on (inmate reduction) strategies from both the city and other non-parties involved in the New Orleans criminal justice system,” they wrote in a court filing.
Interviews and recent court documents show the Gusman and Landrieu camps disagree not only about the future size of New Orleans’ jail. They also offer competing versions of history about the intended scope of the Phase II construction approved by the City Council in 2011 and how the question of what needs the new jail is supposed to fulfill became so muddled.
Each side blames the other for the lack of clarity.
“I’m in a very difficult position because, on the one hand, it’s not my responsibility and I don’t have the funding,” Gusman said during a tour of the 1,438-bed jail last week. “On the other hand, it’s (the city’s) responsibility, and they’re not doing anything. Why haven’t they done something to provide for acute mental health inmates?”
The sheriff’s leadership has been called into question in recent weeks, with the court-appointed expert monitoring the jail reforms suggesting that Gusman has stood in the way of progress. He has been similarly lambasted by the Landrieu administration and some City Council members, who portray Gusman as the largest obstacle to change at OPP.
“Our sheriff was the CAO of this city previously, and he was a city councilperson, so he knows what an ordinance is,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said. “He knows this was the law that was created in 2011: that the building be designed — or redesigned — to house all populations (of inmates). He simply ignored that, as far as I can see.”
The 2011 ordinance required the Phase II jail to “accommodate any type of prisoner under any jurisdiction,” including “inmates that need substance abuse and mental health treatment (except inmates that require acute mental health treatment), female inmates, and prisoners participating in a re-entry program.”
City leaders struggled in recent interviews to explain their initial intentions for housing acutely mentally ill inmates. Some said they believed that designation referred to a small group of detainees so sick they needed to be hospitalized rather than behind bars. That belief, however, was never spelled out by the City Council. Indeed, a review of Criminal Justice Committee minutes — as well as minutes from the working group Landrieu organized in 2010 to examine the city’s jail needs — revealed no firm plans for inmates in need of acute mental health treatment.
Still, some members of the mayoral working group said they believed their recommendation would ensure a jail capable of housing all city inmates under one roof. “That was absolutely the case, and if it wasn’t built that way, the sheriff could be punished by a fine,” recalled Calvin Johnson, a retired Criminal District Court judge who served on the committee. (Johnson also serves on The New Orleans Advocate’s advisory board.)
The ordinance called for various decrepit jail buildings and temporary structures to be closed with the opening of the new jail, with the exception of the Temporary Detention Center, which was authorized to remain open as an overflow facility for up to 18 months. The city’s most recent court filings suggest that the 466-bed temporary center could be used indefinitely as the city seeks to retrofit the fourth floor of the Phase II jail and work toward lowering the inmate population.
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer and chairman of the jail working group, said his “overall impression was that most mental health patients, if not all of them, would be able to be housed in the (new jail) that was being constructed.”
“The emphasis,” Kopplin added, “was placed on this building (being able to) house any type of prisoners, including males, females, administrative segregation, mental health, medical needs. The emphasis was on the word ‘all.’ ”
But Rafael Goyeneche, the Metropolitan Crime Commission president who also sat on the committee, recalled the conversations differently, saying he believed a further building had always been envisioned for housing mentally ill inmates. He remains a proponent of Gusman’s plan and has warned against trimming jail capacity at a time when the New Orleans Police Department is at a 36-year low point in staffing.
“If you don’t build a Phase III to create more beds, then there’s no point in hiring more police officers,” Goyeneche said.
“Here’s an opportunity to not do things the old way of trying to cut corners and cut costs,” he added, “but to do it the right way that will not only provide for the here and now but also the future.”
By not noticing sooner that there was a disagreement, Guidry acknowledged, city officials bear some responsibility for the new jail not turning out the way they expected. “Ultimately, we’re three years into the building and someone outside the city determines there’s a problem with the building,” she said, referring to concerns first raised by DOJ and inmate attorneys in early 2013.
Even before the plaintiffs sounded alarm bells, there were indications the new jail was rooted in differing expectations.
In February 2013, Gusman’s architect, Jerry Hebert, warned the council that his team had been “handcuffed” by FEMA regulations. As an example, he reported having to scatter small medical units around the jail rather than creating one large clinic.
“Is it ideal for a medical unit? I’m gonna tell you probably not,” Hebert told the Criminal Justice Committee. “We need a unit that’s specifically designed for medical and mental health, and that’s a whole different animal than a typical housing unit.”
Responding to Hebert’s remarks, then-City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said she was “still very concerned we’re not doing right by the mental health part,” according to video of the meeting. Guidry ended the session by saying she still had questions about medical and mental health care for inmates.
When the committee revisited the issue in December, Guidry admitted she couldn’t recall “what we expected would be happening with the acutely mentally ill” inmates when the council authorized construction of the Phase II jail.
Kopplin, however, maintains only Gusman is to blame for any shortfalls at the new jail. “To hold anybody responsible other than the sheriff for his failure to comply, I think, is the wrong question to be asked,” he said.
Kopplin also slammed the sheriff for erecting a “clearly oversized” kitchen/warehouse facility capable of serving 8,300 inmates a day, a building he described as “a waste of about $40 million that could have been spent on something else.” The Phase III jail Gusman wants would fill the space between the kitchen building and the 1,438-bed jail, and sheriff’s officials have acknowledged the kitchen was envisioned to serve a larger corrections complex.
During the jail tour, Gusman complained that city leaders have “no vision,” saying they oppose his proposals categorically. “What they’ve done is say this, say that and gone around the room and come up with nothing,” he said.
Gusman said he draws no distinction between inmates who require varying degrees of mental health care, be it acute, subacute or so-called “step-down” treatment, even though his own Phase III proposal shows those populations divided into separate categories with different housing arrangements.
“Acute is acute,” Gusman said. “It’s a team, once you’re on that team.”
While Gusman has deflected criticism about the new jail, a recent report by his own consultant, CGL Companies, echoed some of the city’s concerns, saying special-needs populations would prove “problematic” in a lockup composed of two dozen 60-bed housing units. “The special sub-populations require isolation in units with less than 60 beds, such as administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, juveniles charged as adults, protective custody and others,” the report said.
The Sheriff’s Office, however, says it can’t wait to bid farewell to the odor and cacophony of OPP and move into the Phase II jail. The new lockup, built to replace two jail buildings damaged in the storm, affords more freedom to inmates to move in and out of recreation yards attached to each housing unit.
Gusman’s chief corrections deputy, Michael Tidwell, said the switch from linear to direct supervision, in which a jailer sits inside a housing unit and has a clear vantage point on inmate activity, improves jail conditions because of the emphasis on the “group dynamic.”
“It’s an absolute game-changer,” Tidwell said. “It’s developed to the point where anyone in corrections will tell you if you’re not doing direct supervision, you’re really not doing corrections because you don’t have a clue about what’s going on with your inmates.”
While he heaped praise on the new jail building, Tidwell said the corrections complex would be incomplete without a Phase III. He said it’s a mistake to compare New Orleans’ jail population with that of other communities which face different challenges.
“I would project that five years down the road, after everything is done and all the shouting has quieted down, that the community will look back and say, ‘You know, we have a premier (jail) facility over there that will match, if not exceed, anything in the country,’ ” Tidwell said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.