Nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina inundated the jail in Plaquemines Parish, officials there say they finally are set to open a new detention center, a sprawling facility that will have hundreds of empty beds for the foreseeable future.
Only about 100 of the 871 beds will be occupied upon the jail’s opening.
Like the new jail under construction in New Orleans, which also was funded by hurricane recovery dollars, the detention center near Pointe à la Hache has suffered its share of setbacks.
The $120 million project involved building a jail 19 feet above ground to satisfy federal rules for flood zones.
But after missing an anticipated opening in November, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Lonnie Greco appears so confident the jail finally will open that he has scheduled a Feb. 11 ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate its completion. The project began in August 2011.
Cmdr. Eric Becnel, a Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said officials are scrambling to move inmates into the 210,000-square-foot facility by Feb. 15. That’s the last day the parish may keep its roughly 70 inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison, where they’ve been held since 2008.
“We are still going through punch lists with the contractor and are finalizing preparations for the transfer of our prisoners,” Becnel said. “Because of the Feb. 15 mandate by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, we had to accelerate our anticipated opening date.”
Greco wrote a letter to Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman in December thanking him for his “patience and cooperation while we work through the remaining construction issues affecting the opening of our new prison.”
“I have been informed that the outstanding issues are being addressed,” Greco wrote, “which will allow my staff to begin preparations to open the facility shortly.”
Gusman, whose jail is subject to federal oversight, has come under increasing pressure to move the Plaquemines Parish inmates out of New Orleans, where they’ve been housed in the jail’s Temporary Detention Center. Gusman is struggling to implement a series of court-ordered jail reforms, and city leaders, who under state law must pay for the care of inmates, have urged the sheriff to free up as many resources and space as possible.
City Council President Stacy Head has been the most adamant proponent of moving the Plaquemines Parish inmates out of the city, calling it unconscionable that the city would subsidize those inmates for so long.
Plaquemines Parish has paid Gusman to house the inmates, but Head — citing research by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux — has suggested the rate isn’t high enough to cover the city’s costs.
Philip Stelly, a Gusman spokesman, noted last week that the Sheriff’s Office “has accommodated at least four date changes” to transfer Plaquemines inmates back to the Sheriff’s Office there.
“A Feb. 15 transfer gives (the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office) more space, in the short run, to handle an anticipated spike in bookings during the final days of the Mardi Gras season and, in the longer run, to care for mental health inmates and others with special needs,” Stelly added.
The new Plaquemines Parish Detention Center is widely considered to be a state-of-the-art jail, with features that include biometric locks on certain doors and a professional-grade basketball court. The greatest concern, from Greco’s perspective, is whether much of the facility will ever be put to use.
His efforts to land deals for housing state and federal prisoners have largely fallen flat. Officials said last year they were planning to mothball two of the jail’s three housing wings.
“We are still in discussions with state, federal and local officials and are exploring all possible options,” Becnel said.
The jail’s geography is perhaps its most problematic distinction. It sits more than 30 miles south of Belle Chasse, and the shortest route from that area — where most of the parish’s residents live — entails a ferry ride across the Mississippi River. It also sits in a low-lying, vulnerable region, meaning any state or federal agency housing prisoners there would have to evacuate them in the event of a major tropical storm.
Officials have blamed Jiff Hingle, the disgraced former Plaquemines Parish sheriff, for the jail’s location, saying he insisted it be rebuilt at the same site as the facility Katrina destroyed.
Hingle, who is serving federal prison time for taking bribes from a crooked businessman, also has been blamed for the jail’s huge size, which formed the basis for the replacement jail paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
During his time in office, Hingle expanded the old jail far beyond the parish’s needs, hoping to capitalize on lucrative deals to house state prisoners and federal detainees awaiting deportation. Those visions never fully materialized, and many beds remained empty even before the storm.
In the wake of Katrina, Plaquemines Parish inmates initially were housed in East Baton Rouge Parish before being moved to New Orleans and then Jefferson Parish. They returned on Sept. 3, 2008, to Orleans Parish Prison, where they’ve been ever since, Becnel said.
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