Attorneys for Mayor Mitch Landrieu came out swinging Monday against Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s recent proposal to relocate mentally ill inmates from Orleans Parish Prison to a state facility in St. Gabriel for a few years, criticizing the plan as short on specifics and profligate in cost.
Without offering a counterproposal, the city’s lawyers asked a federal judge to allow them more time to find a cheaper means of satisfying the mental health provisions of a court-ordered plan for reform at OPP.
“We have never questioned whether (the mentally ill inmates) need treatment, but there needs to be some balance,” Harry Rosenberg, an attorney for the city, said during a contentious day of testimony in New Orleans federal court, accusing the sheriff of “handing off” his responsibilities to the state Department of Corrections.
Citing what he said would be the excessive cost of Gusman’s plan, Rosenberg said, “They are literally putting these inmates beyond the cost of staying in a suite at the Windsor Court.”
Some nine months after a federal consent decree intended to improve conditions at the long-troubled lockup took effect, the most-disturbed inmates still are being housed within the oppressive conditions of Templeman V, a jail building that experts have said is woefully ill-suited for prisoners with such special needs. Among other problems, Templeman V lacks space for group therapy and has terrible sight lines for deputies, making it difficult for them to supervise inmates who may pose a danger to themselves.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the sluggish implementation of the consent decree, has made clear he will not tolerate further inaction, leaving the city and the Sheriff’s Office scrambling to find a short-term housing solution before facing off over the issue of whether to build yet another new jail building that can accommodate so-called acutely mentally ill inmates. The new $145 million jail that Gusman hopes to open by the end of the year wasn’t built to house those inmates, who require a suicide-resistant environment and specialized supervision.
“You don’t put psychotic people in a dormitory with other people when they are misperceiving reality,” said Dr. Raymond F. Patterson, the jail’s mental health monitor. “It is a recipe for disaster.”
Gusman has asked Africk to order the city, which under state law must pay for the care of municipal inmates, to cough up some $300,000 to renovate a facility at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, in addition to paying state correctional officers to supervise between two dozen and four dozen mentally ill inmates for three years while a new special needs jail is built. Those officers receive higher salaries than Gusman’s deputies, and for the first few months they would be paid overtime until the state can hire additional correctional officers.
With transportation, food, equipment and other costs, the relocation to Hunt would cost the city up to $2.8 million a year, according to calculations by the city’s attorneys, who derided that price tag as disproportionate given the relatively small number of inmates in question. They also said there is no signed agreement between the Department of Corrections and the Sheriff’s Office with regard to the duration of the overtime rate, suggesting it could continue indefinitely.
“There must be some proportionality between the benefits and costs that the sheriff is proposing,” Rosenberg wrote in a court filing, adding that money spent on housing prisoners reduces what the city can spend on other needs, “not the least of which is the paramount need for more NOPD officers.”
Gusman’s lawyers pushed back, blaming the city for failing to provide a jail fit for all inmate populations and saying city leaders have offered no viable alternative to the sheriff’s plan.
Gusman proposes to house up to 44 special needs inmates in St. Gabriel while he seeks to construct another multimillion-dollar jail building in New Orleans known as the Phase III facility. The city has proposed instead renovating the 1,438-bed facility now nearing completion to include an acute mental health unit.
“The sheriff has no intention of making this any more costly than it needs to be,” said Blake Arcuri, a Gusman lawyer.
“Inexplicably, there has been no step taken by the city toward either construction of or identification of a facility intended to house inmates with acute mental health conditions,” he added in a court filing.
Landrieu’s attorneys challenged almost every aspect of Gusman’s proposal, from the number of new televisions the sheriff has asked the city to install in St. Gabriel — 24 — to the fee the sheriff’s architect would receive for the renovations there.
At several points during Monday’s hearing, Africk reminded Rosenberg that the official number of acutely mentally ill inmates at OPP is more than likely understated, given the staff’s challenges in classifying those admitted to the jail.
Africk mentioned a Friday night incident in which Reginald Pye, an apparently suicidal inmate who wasn’t being housed in the mental health unit, allegedly injured three deputies with a homemade knife. Pye, who was ordered to undergo a mental examination after his arrest on attempted murder charges, had been waving a Bible in one hand and refused to come down from a table when ordered to do so.
The jail remains grossly understaffed and, according to testimony Monday, currently has only about 49 percent of the manpower it requires.
“The jail is a dangerous place,” Africk said. “Dangerous not only because of the fact that it houses violent offenders, but dangerous because the changes to provide a safe and secure environment have not been achieved.”
The mental health discussion also comes about a week after a bipolar woman released from OPP walked into traffic on Interstate 10 and was struck and fatally injured by a taxicab. While jail officials said they were following court orders to release Whitney Getz, the woman’s parents blamed the jail for not notifying the family or her mental health advocate of her impending release.
While city officials have urged frugality at the jail, pointing to the needs of other residents, Patterson told Africk that he measures cost “in terms of human suffering” in his profession. “Right now, at this moment, human pain and suffering is happening for any person who is being handled as an acute mental health person in Templeman V,” he said.
Acknowledging the many moving targets, Africk said it may be impossible to pinpoint in advance a precise cost for short-term housing solutions for mentally ill inmates, adding that the city would be reimbursed for any dollars unused.
He did not rule on Gusman’s St. Gabriel proposal, taking it under advisement. But he hinted in one exchange with Rosenberg that he might be inclined to approve the move, saying the city’s lack of a concrete counterproposal “makes it awful difficult to listen to some of the speculation that I’m hearing” from the city.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.