The long-awaited opening of New Orleans’ new jail, already many months behind schedule, has become something of a mirage. Motorists can see the gleaming $145 million structure overlooking the Pontchartrain Expressway in Mid-City, but when it will open remains elusive.
The latest delays, disclosed during a court hearing Thursday, mean the 1,438-bed facility won’t be ready to house inmates before late April at the earliest — nearly a year after the May 15, 2014, opening date Sheriff Marlin Gusman projected as he sought re-election early last year.
But even a spring timetable seems overly optimistic to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a series of sweeping reforms at Orleans Parish Prison. He noted there are multiple moving parts that threaten to postpone the jail’s opening indefinitely.
For one, he said, the jail will not open until the Sheriff’s Office finds a replacement for Michael Tidwell, the chief corrections deputy who grew frustrated with Gusman’s style of management and resigned last month to take a better-paying job in Florida.
“I’m not convinced the jail is going to open before the fall or toward the end of the year,” Africk said. “There’s no sense opening the jail unless it can be done safely.”
Gusman has touted the new jail as perhaps the single most important fix to the wretched conditions and rampant violence that prompted the court-ordered overhaul of OPP. Actually moving inmates into the facility, however, has remained consistently out of reach.
In her latest update, Susan McCampbell, the corrections expert hired to supervise Gusman’s progress in meeting the demands of the federal consent decree, said Thursday the new jail’s security and fire safety systems have not been completed. Such delays are not unusual, she said, calling the opening of a new correctional facility “an extremely complex undertaking.”
The Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 30 began charging the jail’s contractor a penalty of $15,000 for every day the facility isn’t inhabitable.
Africk made clear Thursday that the mere opening of the new jail won’t amount to a panacea for the Sheriff’s Office in its mandate to operate a constitutional jail. Wading into concerns long harbored by city leaders, who under state law must pay for the care of inmates, Africk declared the facility structurally insufficient to meet the terms of Gusman’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department and the inmates who filed a landmark lawsuit over the jail’s alarming conditions.
The city and Sheriff’s Office still must sort out where so-called special populations of inmates will be housed on a long-term basis, as the new jail is not equipped to treat severely mentally ill inmates. Without assigning blame, Africk noted that the jail, as it was built, also cannot accommodate groups of juvenile detainees and dangerous inmates who need to be housed separately from the general population.
“There’s obviously no mental health facility or infirmary,” McCampbell added. “We need to come up with some solutions on how those populations can be held.”
Africk last year ordered the city to pay for renovations to a state prison facility in St. Gabriel to house and treat OPP inmates who suffer from severe mental illness. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration objected to the price tag — a small group of inmates could be housed there as long as three years — but was overruled when Africk determined the city had failed to come up with a viable alternative.
Africk recently toured the facility at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and said he observed a “marked difference” in the way mentally ill inmates are treated there compared with the “intolerable” lifestyle they endured at OPP, where they had been housed in the prison’s Templeman V facility. “There’s been a sea change from the substandard conditions,” the judge said.
Unaddressed Thursday was Gusman’s push to build yet another new jail building in New Orleans — commonly referred to as a “phase III facility” — to house special populations of inmates and complete the complex the sheriff has dubbed the Orleans Parish Correction Center. Such a structure would connect the new 1,438-bed jail to the sheriff’s kitchen and warehouse building.
That proposal has been highly controversial among city leaders, who have blanched at its potentially nine-figure price tag, and advocates for criminal justice reform, who have demanded the city reduce its inmate population. While Africk has not indicated whether he will arbitrate the disagreement between Gusman and Landrieu over phase III, he emphasized Thursday that the new jail’s housing conundrum “has to be — and will be — addressed.”
“We’re not going to put them in tents,” Africk said of inmates who need segregated housing. “Everybody’s going to have to put their heads together for the good of the community.”
The judge also said he was dissatisfied with a series of deadlines included in a new short-term agreement Gusman reached with the Justice Department and inmate advocates, a deal intended to speed up the jail reforms and assuage attorneys for the OPP inmates, who’ve grown impatient with the pace of change.
Africk called the dates unrealistic and said some of the deal’s terms were ambiguous. “We’re not going to set the sheriff up for failure,” he said, asking attorneys for both sides to draft an amended agreement.
McCampbell, in her update to the judge, lauded the Sheriff’s Office for making strides on a number of fronts. Perhaps most notably, she said, the jail finally has set up a new classification system that the Sheriff’s Office will use to assess the risks inmates pose to themselves and to others.
“I think that is a significant positive,” McCampbell said. “This means that inmates will be safer. Staff will be safer.”
On a broader note, she said she has detected an increasing “willingness to help” on the part of the Sheriff’s Office that has sown optimism among her team of experts. “They’re literally overworked,” she said of the deputies. “They’re trying to open a new jail while running an existing jail.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.