Weeks after two inmates died inside the New Orleans jail, a group of advocates have renewed their request to the New Orleans City Council to bring down the number of inmates held there.
At a news conference last week, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition said it was calling on the council to follow through on a pledge to pass an ordinance to cap the jail's population.
Two inmates died in separate and unexplained incidents in November, one at the main Orleans Justice Center and one in the satellite Temporary Detention Center.
Coalition members said they want the City Council to set an absolute limit on the number of inmates held in New Orleans. When the total surpasses that number, the sheriff would have to start releasing low-level offenders, under a plan similar to one in effect in Jefferson Parish.
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The jail reform group also accused Sheriff Marlin Gusman of illegally housing hundreds of inmates in a temporary facility, but the Sheriff’s Office said it is operating under a special permit from the city.
“We are not willing any longer to allow the city to break the law to incarcerate people accused of breaking the law,” said Adina Marx-Arpadi, a coordinator with the Prison Reform Coalition. “Nobody should die in jail, let alone in a facility that is being operated illegally.”
The group claims the Sheriff's Office should not be allowed to operate the Temporary Detention Center, which opened after Hurricane Katrina to replace storm-damaged facilities. The building held 221 inmates on Wednesday, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
A 27-year-old inmate at the center, Evan Sullivan, died last month of unexplained causes.
A total of 1,107 inmates were being held at the Orleans Justice Center on Wednesday, according to the Sheriff’s Office. That building is limited by law to 1,438 beds, though in practice its capacity is much lower. Another 76 Orleans inmates were being held at jails in distant East Carroll and Concordia parishes.
Reform group members said that under a law passed by the City Council, the temporary building should have been shuttered after the 2015 opening of the $150 million Orleans Justice Center.
However, the Sheriff’s Office, the office of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the office of City Councilwoman Susan Guidry all pointed to a temporary certificate of occupancy issued by the New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits on June 28.
“We are legally using the building, and we were granted the extension for one year from the Mayor’s Office,” said Amy Barrios, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office.
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An attorney working with the Prison Reform Coalition said she believes the city issued the temporary occupancy certificate in violation of the same ordinance that allowed the Sheriff’s Office to build the Orleans Justice Center.
Lawyer Emily Posner said she was exploring the group’s legal options if the city does not close the Temporary Detention Center.