Sheriff Marlin Gusman has touted his new $145 million jail as an antidote to the legacy of dysfunction at Orleans Parish Prison — a game changer that he says will stem rampant violence while satisfying a court-ordered plan for wholesale reforms at the jail.

It’s far from clear, however, that the new lockup will amount to the cure-all Gusman envisions.

City leaders have raised a host of concerns, most notably about the jail’s design, which cannot accommodate some inmates, such as those in need of acute mental health treatment. Questions also remain about when, if ever, the 1,438-bed facility will be able to house the city’s entire inmate population — still hovering around 2,000 — without the help of overflow buildings.

Add the slow pace of construction to the deepening uncertainty.

The new building is several months behind schedule, Gusman has admitted, meaning that inmates will remain within the turbulent confines of OPP at least into the final months of 2014.

During his re-election bid this spring, the sheriff said the “direct supervision-style” jail would open by May 15, an estimate he later adjusted to midsummer. In a letter Wednesday to City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, he described the new target as “September or early October,” but even then prisoners won’t move in immediately.

“It will take approximately 60 days after we get access to the building before we can transfer inmates in order to allow for sufficient training and orientation to the new facility,” Gusman wrote, snubbing Guidry in the same letter by refusing to appear before the council’s Criminal Justice Committee to discuss jail issues. Guidry chairs the committee.

The shifting timetable raises new questions about the jail at a critical moment, as Sheriff’s Office and city leaders seek — with limited financial resources — to remedy deplorable conditions at Orleans Parish Prison.

OPP remains among the most dangerous jails in the country, and its protracted use could jeopardize inmates and the systemic changes the Sheriff’s Office is required to make under the terms of a federal consent decree. Violence persists at the jail in large part because of understaffing and unsupervised tiers, and authorities have said it will take several months, if not years, to hire an appropriate number of jailers.

The U.S. Department of Justice and a group of inmates who filed a class-action lawsuit over conditions at the jail have drawn fresh attention to OPP’s decrepit physical structure and its attendant fire-safety hazards.

Pressing concerns

Gusman has often played down those concerns, pointing to the supposedly imminent opening of the new jail, a four-story building on Perdido Street.

But those issues and others will only become more pressing if OPP remains open indefinitely.

The contractors building the new jail would not comment on the progress of the project. The 433,409-square-foot structure has been under construction since 2011 and is being paid for with Federal Emergency Management Agency money.

Gusman’s spokesman, Philip Stelly, attributed the delays to “the vagaries of construction,” including weather, and said no single factor was to blame.

“If you’ve done any type of construction work, you understand that a completion date can become a moving target,” Stelly said. “A good example of this is the Carver Theater, which originally projected a September 2013 opening but was delayed until late April 2014. That said, on a recent visit, I noted that the facility is dried in, it has more walls up and spaces are more clearly defined. We’re making progress.”

Gusman has butted heads with Mayor Mitch Landrieu over funding for the jail — state law requires the city to pay for the care of municipal inmates — and how to affordably meet the terms of the consent decree, which took effect last year. The decree, approved by a federal judge who deemed OPP’s conditions unconstitutional, requires the Sheriff’s Office to drastically increase staffing to ensure inmates are adequately supervised and receive an acceptable level of medical treatment.

After striking a temporary accord on funding new hires, the city and the sheriff have pivoted to another apparent impasse over where to treat inmates with acute mental health problems. Court-appointed experts say the building now used for that purpose, a 285-bed facility known as Templeman V, is woefully ill-equipped. The jail’s mental health monitor has said that building is so inadequate it “causes further deterioration rather than improvement in inmates.”

Reduced capacity?

That finding sent city officials back to the drawing board, and last week they proposed modifying the unfinished fourth floor of the new jail so that it could provide medical and acute mental health services. The move would reduce the new jail’s capacity somewhat but would allow the Sheriff’s Office to close Templeman V and avoid renovating the Temporary Detention Center, a 500-bed facility that also could be retrofitted to house acutely mentally ill inmates.

Gusman has said he will push for the construction of yet another permanent building for overflow and special inmate populations, but it’s not clear how he would pay for it. Stelly, his spokesman, said the sheriff had no comment on the city’s latest proposal.

“Part of the reason the sheriff did not come to (the Criminal Justice Committee) meeting,” Stelly said, “is because he said he wanted to take a look at proposals that are reasonable and actionable.”

Modifying the new jail appears to be a cheaper and faster alternative, City Attorney Sharonda Williams said last week, though she added the city’s consultants are still gathering information. That proposal drew support from inmate advocates — the plaintiffs in the consent decree — who may ask U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to intervene if Gusman fails to overhaul the jail. Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who represents the inmates, spoke of “a real sense of urgency” about where acutely mentally ill inmates will be housed.

“If we choose to renovate the Temporary Detention Center, you’re locking yourself into having that facility open forever because all of the mental health care will be provided there,” Schwartzmann told the Criminal Justice Committee. “I think the stakes are tremendously high for us as taxpayers. This has long-term repercussions for our city.”

Landrieu’s administration has accused Gusman of mismanaging his office’s finances and moving at a “glacial pace” to implement the consent decree. The sheriff’s absence at Wednesday’s committee meeting seemed to underscore the growing tensions.

Noting that Gusman is a former city chief administrative officer and City Council member, Guidry said, “I’m sure he is quite aware, as I put it in an email to him, that a big purpose of these committee meetings is to get to resolutions of issues.”

Remove state prisoners?

Another source of frustration from the city’s perspective has been Gusman’s failure to transfer out of the jail nearly 500 state prisoners and several dozen inmates he is housing for Plaquemines Parish while its jail is under construction.

Overflow population will require at least one existing jail building to remain open for the foreseeable future even after the new 1,438-bed facility opens, and city officials have urged Gusman to cut the number of inmates to improve safety and reduce costs. The state and Plaquemines Parish pay to house inmates at OPP, but some council members have increasingly questioned the practice and said it’s of no benefit to the city.

“The Hilton just doesn’t keep the Holiday Inn’s customers at a cost to the Hilton,” said Councilwoman Stacy Head, who has demanded Gusman transfer inmates not awaiting trial in Orleans Parish.

Williams, the city attorney, said city officials are researching the possibility of forcing Gusman’s hand and requiring him to return state prisoners to the Department of Corrections, such as by passing an ordinance that would limit the types of inmates the jail could house. She said the city’s options appear to be limited, however.

“I just have the sense now that it’s now or never,” said Guidry. “We need to learn who’s in that jail, what populations we need to have in there and what the best way is, the most efficient way is, to house them.”

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