A federal judge dealt a serious blow Tuesday to Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s bid to increase the size of the city’s new jail, declining to order city leaders to build a multimillion-dollar expansion that the sheriff has insisted is needed to keep New Orleans safe and accommodate its large inmate population.
After months of negotiations with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, Gusman took his case to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, contending the construction of a so-called Phase III jail facility is necessary to satisfy a wide-ranging federal court consent decree intended to reform jail conditions in New Orleans.
The sheriff said the building would be designed to house mentally ill inmates and other groups of detainees who must be housed separately from the general inmate population.
He asked Africk to force Landrieu’s hand weeks after the Sheriff’s Office shuttered the dilapidated Orleans Parish Prison and opened a new $150 million, 1,438-bed jail.
Landrieu has acknowledged that state law requires the city to foot the bill for the care of local inmates, a financial burden that has ballooned under the federally monitored jail reforms. But the mayor has opposed the proposal to erect another jail building, saying the city should focus on reducing an incarceration rate that remains far above the national average.
Africk firmly rejected Gusman’s plea, issuing a seven-page ruling that said the sheriff had fallen “woefully short” in his legal arguments. He was equally dismissive of a related motion in which the sheriff sought to have city leaders held in contempt of court, saying the request “totally lacks merit.”
Gusman has touted the findings of a court-appointed panel known as the Mental Health Working Group that endorsed the proposal to expand the jail to house the mentally ill. Africk, however, said the recommendation was never intended to be binding, even though the panel consisted of representatives selected by both the city and the sheriff.
“The parties did not delegate to the (working group) their political and legal obligations to arrive at a solution of this issue,” Africk wrote, adding that Gusman had “utterly failed to address his entitlement to an injunction ordering the city to build Phase III.”
The city and sheriff have asked Africk time and again to settle disputes cropping up in the jail litigation. The judge, with some exceptions, has been reluctant to take sides, saying he would prefer for the political process to run its course. He also has sought to avoid micromanaging the class-action case about jail conditions that led to the consent decree, delegating oversight of the jail reforms to a team of experts.
The latest motion before Africk came at a critical juncture in the case and represented high stakes for New Orleans. Early plans for the jail expansion showed that it could cost as much as $97 million; like the new jail that recently opened in Mid-City, it would be paid for mostly with Katrina recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Landrieu administration has said it has tens of millions of hurricane recovery dollars at its disposal, money that potentially could be used to build another jail building. But the mayor has made clear he would rather use that money on other projects.
A Landrieu spokesman said Tuesday that city officials were pleased with Africk’s ruling.
“As encouraged by the federal court, we remain eager to reach a master settlement with the sheriff so that we can resolve all of these issues related to the jail once and for all,” spokesman Hayne Rainey said in a statement. “The goal is to have a right-sized, constitutional jail that makes our city safer without decimating city services.”
James Williams, a Sheriff’s Office attorney, said he believed Africk’s “hands were tied” by certain provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a 1996 law intended to limit the discretion of federal judges in lawsuits involving jails.
“We thought it was worth trying to move along an effort that seemed to have stalled,” Williams said in a phone interview, adding that the sheriff has not ruled out an appeal of Africk’s ruling. “We were really trying to kick-start some activity.”
Williams said he has detected a “softening” of late within the Landrieu administration regarding the proposed jail expansion. The sheriff, he added, is willing to “re-evaluate” how many beds the Phase III building would need.
“I’m not quite sure we’re at an impasse,” he said.
However, Africk’s ruling left the two sides no closer to deciding where the sheriff eventually will house severely mentally ill inmates. All sides agree the new jail was not built to accommodate such inmates, though the city has proposed renovating part of the building so that it could house them. Gusman said a renovation is impractical and would considerably reduce the total number of beds.
At present, the city’s severely mentally ill inmates are being held at a state prison facility in St. Gabriel that Africk ordered the city to pay to modify for that purpose last year. But that arrangement is expected to end in 2017.
Meanwhile, approximately 200 pre-trial inmates have been sent to jails in northeast Louisiana.
The sheriff says the new jail cannot hold those inmates because it’s too small. City officials, however, have said those inmates could return to New Orleans if Gusman would agree to scrap a state re-entry program and return scores of prisoners to the state Department of Corrections.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.