More than four years after New Orleans officials began construction on a building meant to replace one of the country’s most notoriously inhumane jail facilities, Sheriff Marlin Gusman on Monday began moving the first group of inmates into the city’s new $150 million lockup, calling it “the beginning of a new day.”
The 1,438-bed facility on Perdido Street, funded largely with federal hurricane recovery dollars, replaces an aging campus of jail buildings just a few blocks away where conditions for prisoners were deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.
Opening of the new building will by no means end the controversy over local jail conditions. Even as the long-delayed process of transferring inmates began Monday, debate continued about whether New Orleans will need to spend tens of millions more dollars on an additional building in order to accommodate all of the city’s inmates.
Gusman, meanwhile, has been ordered to implement a series of sweeping reforms at the jail that go beyond simply upgrading prisoners’ physical surroundings.
But Monday’s transfer was a long-awaited milestone. The sheriff at the last moment scrapped plans for a musical procession to mark the occasion and promised a “more formal ceremony” in coming weeks, during which he apparently intends to unveil the name of the new jail.
“Today, I’m pleased to stand before you and say that Old Parish Prison, Orleans Parish Prison, ‘OPP’ is closed forever. Forever,” Gusman told reporters. “This facility marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new day where we’re not going to be just warehousing inmates, but we’re going to be concerned about public safety. OPP’s closing should send a message to everyone that the old ways of doing it are over.”
The new jail, unlike the notoriously violent old prison, was built to allow for so-called direct supervision of inmates — a design that authorities have said will sharply reduce the frequency of inmate attacks.
Gusman, who has blamed poor conditions at the old jail on the decrepit state of the facilities and the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, has said the new jail will be a drastic improvement.
The new facility, built on the site of two previous jail buildings known as Templeman III and IV, features nearly 900 surveillance cameras, two dozen outdoor recreation areas, computers and what the Sheriff’s Office referred to as “strategically positioned body-scanning security devices” to prevent inmates and deputies from smuggling contraband into the facility.
“This jail takes us light years from where we were,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local watchdog organization. “We needed a jail like this 30 years ago.”
Some of the first inmates transferred Monday morning had been housed at the Conchetta detention center, a converted motel on Tulane Avenue that has been home to juvenile inmates. The opening of the new jail also requires the sheriff to decommission the four remaining temporary tents he has used to house prisoners since Katrina.
The City Council has authorized a 300-bed facility known as the Temporary Detention Center to remain open for 18 months to house overflow inmates.
“We’re moving into the 21st century,” Gusman said. “We’re moving out of complexes and buildings that are outmoded, outdated.”
The opening of the new jail comes as Gusman continues to butt heads with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration — which under state law must pay for the care of local inmates — over the cost of the court-ordered jail reforms. The two sides have disagreed in particular over the number of beds needed to house the city’s inmate population and whether the new jail has sufficient space.
Gusman contends another multimillion-dollar facility should be constructed, perhaps using the remaining tens of million of dollars the Federal Emergency Management Agency committed to public safety projects in New Orleans after Katrina.
In his remarks Monday, the sheriff complained there has been “no action by the city” to begin construction on the facility that Gusman maintains is needed to house special needs inmates, such as those who are acutely mentally ill. That population has been moved indefinitely to a state prison facility in St. Gabriel.
City leaders, for their part, have pushed to reduce the overall inmate population. They insist that the jail opening this week could house all of the city’s inmates if Gusman would return to the Department of Corrections some 300 state prisoners he’s housing. Gusman instead last week sent nearly 200 pretrial city detainees to jails in northeastern Louisiana, saying they would not fit in the new jail.
Gusman defended that transfer Monday, saying he did not want to disrupt a regional re-entry program he’s running for state prisoners. He noted that even though the new building has more than 1,400 beds, they can never all be occupied at once because certain groups of detainees need to be housed separately from the main body of prisoners.
Between the new jail and the Temporary Detention Center, he put the total inmate capacity at between 1,400 and 1,500. “I can’t give you an exact number because it changes,” he said.
Right now, the Sheriff’s Office has about 1,800 inmates in its custody, including those sent last week to other jails. Landrieu has asked repeatedly that the more than 300 state prisoners be removed, but that request has been rebuffed.
Last week, his administration asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the jail reforms, to forbid Gusman from housing inmates in other parishes before he has returned the state prisoners to the Department of Corrections.
The opening of the new jail means authorities finally will close the doors of Old Parish Prison, which began housing inmates in 1930. The Sheriff’s Office said the transfer of inmates into the new facility will be completed later this week.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian