A federal judge has approved Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s plan for temporarily housing inmates with mental health needs at a state prison about 60 miles from New Orleans, brushing aside strenuous objections from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which must find a way to pay for it.
In a sharply worded ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk ordered the city to hand over more than $400,000 by Sept. 1 for renovations and supplies that will be needed to house as many as four dozen mentally ill inmates at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. After that, the city will have to pay more than $200,000 each month to cover the cost of security, mental health services, food and fuel.
The plan is part of a federal court order, known as a consent decree, outlining mandatory changes at the city’s jail, which has attracted complaints about the treatment of mentally ill patients in particular for years.
Africk’s 31-page order, bristling with frustration over the slow pace of reform, bluntly dismisses nearly all of the mayor’s objections to the cost of the plan. He blasts the city’s lawyers for failing to provide any viable alternative and for using flippant language in discussing the issue.
“The city’s arguments included rhetoric more befitting a press conference than a judicial proceeding,” Africk wrote.
The judge took particular exception to the city’s comparison of per-inmate jail costs with that of “staying at a suite at the Windsor Court,” writing that “such arguments by the city trivialize the plight of vulnerable inmates in dire need of mental health care.”
Africk’s ruling is the latest in a string of courtroom setbacks for the mayor that will step up pressure on the city’s budget. Another judge is already demanding that the city allocate $17.5 million for the city’s firefighters’ pension fund, and the mayor’s appeals in that case are nearly exhausted.
In a prepared statement on Wednesday, Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble called Gusman’s plan wasteful and hinted that the city may appeal Africk’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We are reviewing the court’s ruling and determining our legal options,” he said.
For Gusman, who proposed moving inmates to St. Gabriel last month, Africk’s decision means his temporary plan can go forward while debate continues over a long-term solution for housing inmates with special needs.
His idea is to use Elayn Hunt for the next three years while he constructs a new jail that can accommodate such inmates. The city has called for retrofitting a building that is already nearly finished, arguing that mental health needs should have been incorporated into its design in the first place.
The sheriff released a statement on Wednesday, saying, “With this ruling, we hope all parties begin to recognize the need to provide for public safety in a more cooperative and thoughtful manner.”
Still, while Africk’s decision came as a win for Gusman, it also underscored the poor conditions faced by the jail’s most vulnerable detainees, which have not improved to the court’s satisfaction under the sheriff’s watch.
In his written order, Africk quotes from the testimony of Raymond Patterson, a doctor who is part of the team of outside experts brought in to monitor the sheriff’s progress in reforming the jail: “Human pain and suffering, right now at this moment, is happening for anyone, in my opinion, who is being handled as an acute mental health person in Templeman V,” Patterson said, referring to the facility where mentally ill inmates are housed now.
At the same time, Africk’s order takes the Landrieu administration to task for focusing almost entirely on expenses.
“The city implies, although it is too savvy to overtly state, that 10 or 20 inmates with acute mental health issues can continue to languish in barbaric conditions,” he wrote, “because remedying such conditions is costly.”
In sum, Africk blames both the city and the sheriff for the slow place of improvement at the jail. “When confronted with the city’s ill-advised attempt to politicize a non-political issue and a lack of management by the sheriff, one begins to understand the glacial pace at which the consent judgment has been implemented thus far and the growing frustration of this court,” he wrote.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Aug. 14 to reflect that the inmates to be housed at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center will include both inmates with both acute and sub-acute mental-health needs.