Less than two weeks after he opened a new $150 million jail, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has asked a federal judge to order construction to begin “as soon as possible” on yet another lockup that would expand the city’s inmate capacity by several hundred beds.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has vigorously opposed the proposal and its multimillion-dollar price tag, portraying it as antithetical to his administration’s push to reduce New Orleans’ high incarceration rate.
But for the first time in a long-simmering legal battle, Gusman’s attorneys on Wednesday petitioned U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to order the city to construct the additional jail building under the aegis of a court-ordered plan to reform New Orleans’ troubled jail.
While Gusman has committed an unspecified amount of hurricane recovery money to the project, his attorneys have contended the Landrieu administration is required by state law to foot the bill.
With a compromise appearing as elusive as ever, the sheriff has turned to Africk, who could decide that the additional jail building, long referred to as a “Phase III facility,” is required to satisfy the demands of the sweeping federal consent decree that Gusman signed in 2013 with the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of inmates who filed suit over the horrendous conditions they faced awaiting trial in New Orleans.
The new facility would house mentally ill inmates and other so-called special populations of inmates who must be separated from the general jail population.
The sheriff’s attorneys also asked Africk to hold city officials in contempt of court for their “efforts to frustrate” Gusman’s compliance with the consent decree, an increasingly common request that highlights the deepening acrimony between the Sheriff’s Office and City Hall.
The move comes amid a flurry of litigation, as Gusman also filed two lawsuits against Landrieu earlier this week in Civil District Court, demanding additional funding from the city and raises for his deputies. The sheriff for years has accused Landrieu of shortchanging his office and underfunding the increasingly expensive operations of the city’s jail.
The tension between the sheriff, who runs the jail, and City Hall, which is required to pay for local inmates’ care, goes back many years, before either Gusman or Landrieu was in office and before the consent decree called for expensive changes in how New Orleans’ inmates are housed.
Taking something of a new tack, the sheriff’s attorneys, in their most recent court papers, invoked the recent legal battle that Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell successfully waged against the city’s attempts to cut his budget. In that case, Morrell persuaded the courts to restore funding that Morrell — like Gusman an independently elected official — insisted was needed to staff his office at a functional capacity.
In the jail litigation, Gusman’s attorneys, citing high turnover rates, claim the Sheriff’s Office will be unable to implement the mandatory reforms unless deputies’ pay is increased.
“The OPSO deputies risk their lives and safety to protect the public from violent criminals, all while ensuring that inmates are housed in a safe, humane and constitutional manner,” the attorneys wrote. “The city must compensate the OPSO deputies’ sacrifice and commitment to a safer New Orleans by paying them a living wage.”
City officials have disputed that deputies are underpaid and note that they received a pay increase in late 2013. Gusman’s deputies make significantly less per year than New Orleans police officers, but city officials have attributed that discrepancy to the fact that, unlike other parishes, deputies here are not tasked with what is known as primary policing responsibility.
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday that the city objects to Gusman’s budget demands in large part because of the sheriff’s refusal to return to the state Department of Corrections several hundred state prisoners being housed in New Orleans. Those prisoners have remained here even as Gusman this month transferred some 250 pretrial inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana, saying they would not fit in the new 1,438-bed jail.
The sheriff has said he has no intention of removing the state prisoners, pointing to the success of a regional re-entry program he runs for the state that he says is reducing recidivism rates.
“Because he wants to house state prisoners, he’s asking you all for more money,” Kopplin told the committee. “We lose money in significant amounts every day by housing the state inmates here in our local jail.”
In federal court, Gusman’s attorneys have set their focus on persuading Africk to order the construction of a Phase III jail, a project that would cost anywhere from $56 million to $97 million and would sit between the recently opened jail and the sheriff’s new kitchen and warehouse facility.
Specifically, they asked the judge to adopt the findings of the so-called Mental Health Working Group, a committee of experts tasked by Africk with determining the best way to provide mental health services to New Orleans inmates. That group, which included representatives nominated by both the city and the sheriff, unanimously endorsed Gusman’s plans to expand the city’s jail, voicing particular concern over the number of inmates in New Orleans in need of psychiatric care.
The city has acknowledged it has tens of millions of dollars in hurricane recovery dollars at its disposal earmarked for public-safety projects that potentially could be used to build a Phase III facility.
But the Landrieu administration has aggressively sought to curb the city’s inmate population as part of a broader strategy to reform the local criminal justice system. It insists the sheriff has sufficient jail space for the city’s approximately 1,500 pretrial detainees, and it says they could be housed in the new jail and the Temporary Detention Center if Gusman would remove state prisoners from his facilities.
When the City Council authorized construction of the 1,438-bed jail, it was with the understanding that it could house the city’s inmate population for the foreseeable future.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.