The federal judge overseeing a sweeping reform of Orleans Parish Prison said Thursday that he was blindsided by city leaders’ decision this week to issue a stop-work order on a new $145 million jail, and he chided Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration for waiting months to act upon its long-held assertion that the new lockup was being built in violation of city law.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk declined — at least for now — to consider a request to lift the order, telling city officials and Sheriff Marlin Gusman to try again to resolve the impasse among themselves. But Africk warned both sides that even though construction on the 1,438-bed facility has been halted, he will not allow any exceptions to the demands of a federal consent decree that requires increased staffing and an overhaul of OPP’s inhumane conditions.
The jail, Africk said, remains “a very dangerous place” that, despite incremental progress, is still beset by “unacceptable levels of violence, death, suicide, bodily injury and sexual assault.”
Court-appointed experts reiterated at a hearing Thursday that the Sheriff’s Office cannot fully implement the reforms without the clean slate afforded by a new facility.
“The city’s latest legal maneuver will undoubtedly result in many more hours of legal wrangling and delay,” Africk said. “Good for the lawyers, but not for those inmates and staff who must now still suffer.”
While the new jail has been under construction for years, Africk complained that neither he nor any of his official monitors knew that Landrieu’s administration was even considering taking such a drastic step only two months before inmates were expected to begin moving into the building.
City officials, in issuing the stop-work order, claimed that the new jail, contrary to the city ordinance authorizing its construction, is not designed to accommodate all classifications of inmates, including those who must be housed separately from the general population because they are juveniles or require special medical or mental health treatment. To remedy this, the Landrieu administration — which under state law must pay for the care of local inmates — has proposed redesigning the fourth floor of the new jail at a cost of approximately $7 million.
Gusman insists that at this point such a renovation is no longer feasible, and that those changes to the facility would greatly reduce its capacity for housing inmates. He proposes to construct another jail building — at a price tag of $80 million or more — to house the so-called special populations of inmates.
Asked about the timing of the stop-work order, city officials have said they only recently received “full notice” of the jail’s design shortfalls and that they have had limited access to the construction site — claims Gusman denies.
Africk, for his part, suggested that the move was the latest in a “pattern” in which city officials dither for months before lodging last-minute legal objections.
“If the sheriff is in violation of city zoning ordinance now, he was also in violation months ago,” Africk said. “Especially frustrating is the fact that many months ago the city was advised by the sheriff that if the city wanted to retrofit the fourth floor of the jail, the time to begin was then. The interruption would have been less costly, and any renovation delays would not have been as significant.”
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the stop-work order was issued after it became clear the city and Sheriff’s Office “did not have a meeting of the minds” on the question of the jail’s size. He said the city acted after officials became convinced that Gusman “did not intend to comply” with a city ordinance requiring the new jail to be equipped to house all populations of inmates.
“We haven’t been unclear about our position,” Kopplin said, referring to the proposal to renovate the fourth floor.
Gusman and Landrieu appear to have reached a stalemate over the proper size of the jail — Africk observed Thursday that the two sides “operate in a sea of distrust” — with the mayor pushing for an ambitious reduction in the city’s inmate population and the sheriff dismissing those projections as unrealistic.
The standoff has raised the possibility that Africk, despite his attempts to remain neutral, will be asked to weigh in on the issue. For now though, the judge has made clear he’d rather the two sides try to decide that through what he refers to as “the political process.”
“The court prefers that the stark and sometimes shocking deficiencies at the Orleans Parish Prison be addressed by the elected representatives of this community,” Africk said, “and not this court.”
The judge also heard testimony Thursday from the team of monitors tasked with assessing Gusman’s progress in implementing the mandated reforms. The experts largely echoed a now-familiar refrain that the jail has made some progress, but that more deputies are needed to ensure inmate safety.
Susan McCampbell, the lead monitor, told Africk that she had been distressed to learn of the stop-work order because of the indefinite delay it will cause in opening the new jail. “It means absolute, concrete harm to the inmates” and deputies, she said.
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