Pointing to a shortage of beds in the new $145 million jail opening next week, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman on Thursday transferred nearly 200 inmates awaiting trial in New Orleans to two jails in northeastern Louisiana, defying a request by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to first remove several hundred state prisoners housed at Orleans Parish Prison.
The Sheriff’s Office sent 180 local inmates — some of them facing murder charges — to jails several hours away in Franklin Parish, outside Monroe, and East Carroll Parish, which borders Arkansas.
The move upset defense attorneys, who cried foul at the distance that will separate them from their clients indefinitely.
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, issued a statement blasting the move. “Moving local inmates out of Orleans Parish Prison at an extra cost in order to house state prisoners that are not our responsibility is not only fiscal insanity, but is also the height of irresponsibility,” he said.
The financial details of the arrangement remained unclear, and even Franklin Parish Sheriff Kevin Cobb, who took on 40 New Orleans inmates, said he had “no idea” how long the detainees would be under his custody.
“They’re doing some transfers from one facility to the next, but that’s all I know,” Cobb said, referring to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. “I do not expect it to be long-term. I understand this is a transitional situation.”
The jails in both parishes were selected in part because of their good reputation among the corrections community, but also because Gusman failed to find facilities closer to New Orleans with both the space and the manpower to take on the city’s inmates, according to a person familiar with the negotiations that led to the transfers.
Even though they have left OPP, the transferred inmates remain subject to the terms of a sweeping federal consent decree that outlines certain standards that must be afforded to the city’s pretrial detainees.
At the moment, the Sheriff’s Office has enough room to house the city’s inmates and then some, but its dilapidated jail buildings have been deemed unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a series of mandatory reforms at OPP.
After the new jail opens, several buildings now housing inmates will be decommissioned, including the notorious Old Parish Prison, which accepted its first inmates in 1930, and a collection of tents the sheriff has used as temporary housing since Hurricane Katrina.
Under a city ordinance, the Temporary Detention Center will be permitted to remain open for an additional 18 months to serve as an overflow facility.
The inmate population at OPP now stands at about 1,800, a number that includes more than 300 state prisoners. The new jail will have 1,438 beds.
It was not clear how the Sheriff’s Office decided who would make the trip to north Louisiana. But the list of the transferred inmates included several men accused of violent crimes both behind bars and on the streets of New Orleans.
Among them is Lorenzo Conner, a mentally ill ex-convict who escaped from state custody earlier this year and is awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges.
Another inmate sent packing was 23-year-old Janero McBride, indicted in the fatal shooting of a man in May in the parking lot of Melba’s Restaurant in St. Roch. Prosecutors also recently charged McBride with bludgeoning a fellow inmate with a metal pipe shank, sending the man to the hospital.
Another inmate on the list, Eric Youngblood, 27, is awaiting trial on charges of murder and conspiring to smuggle contraband into OPP.
Gusman issued a brief statement Thursday saying the previously unannounced transfer had been “executed successfully and without incident.” The Sheriff’s Office is expected to send about 70 additional inmates out of the parish at a later date.
The move infuriated the Landrieu administration, which has repeatedly asked the sheriff to return to the state’s custody several Department of Corrections prisoners who are serving time for various reasons at OPP. Both sides acknowledge that some of those prisoners are awaiting transfer to state facilities after being sentenced in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
But City Hall, which under state law must pay for the care of New Orleans inmates, has questioned the sheriff’s insistence upon running a regional re-entry program at a time when city leaders are trying to trim the inmate population so it might someday fit inside the 1,438-bed jail Gusman intends to open next week.
Gusman often boasts about the re-entry program, which is intended to reduce recidivism among convicts completing the final months of their state prison terms. Nearly 130 prisoners were enrolled in the program as of last month.
The sheriff has insisted that aside from the re-entry program, state prisoners are serving several important functions at the jail that otherwise would require taxpayer funding. The Landrieu administration has threatened legal action to try to force their removal.
In his statement, Gusman said the Orleans Public Defenders office had been “informed” of the inmate transfer. But Derwyn Bunton, the city’s chief public defender, said his office “wasn’t provided any input into the sheriff’s decision to move our clients as far away as he is moving them.”
“For us, an office already struggling with resources, to impose this kind of strain is just something we would never have agreed to,” Bunton said. “The system can expect delays, because, constitutionally, we’re going to have to maintain contact with our clients.”
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