The New Orleans City Council expressed deep skepticism Thursday about the $62.6 million Sheriff Marlin Gusman has requested from the city to run Orleans Parish Prison in 2015 — an amount more than double the $28 million allocation recommended by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
As Gusman watched from the audience of the City Council chamber, leaving an empty seat at the budget presentation table, council members grilled the sheriff’s top deputies about a recently signed contract for inmate health care they assailed as “obscenely” expensive. The five-year deal, awarded to Correct Care Solutions of Nashville, Tennessee, is worth more than $15 million in its first year, a sum city leaders said is hard to stomach.
“Are we doing elective surgery and eyelifts?” Stacy Head, the council president, asked Michael Tidwell, Gusman’s chief corrections deputy. “I expect this is going to be, ultimately, an embarrassing scandal for the city of New Orleans when it’s all said and done — that we are spending this much money for health care when we have as many needs as we do in the city.”
“It’s such a high cost, I question what kind of services (inmates) could possibly be getting to cost this much,” added Head, whose outrage was shared by Councilwoman Susan Guidry. “You could hire a cadre of primary care physicians, a couple of surgeons, a few psychiatrists and keep them on full time, full staff, like the feds do at their prisons, for just a tiny percentage of what this costs.”
Tidwell could not offer the specific services that Correct Care Solutions will provide at the jail, but he defended the contract, saying inmate health care costs have risen drastically across the country.
“This contract was negotiated at length over an extended period of time, and it costs what it actually costs,” Tidwell told Head. “I’m sure you understand we do not provide elective surgery or eyelifts or tummy tucks or anything of the nature. At the end of the day, it’s basic health care that’s being provided for the inmate population.”
Head and Guidry also expressed concern about the length of time it would take CCS to become fully staffed, and the fact that the contract contemplates an increase in the local inmate population at a time when it has steadily declined. Tidwell said the contract has provisions allowing renegotiations in the event the inmate population continues to decline, but Head said the terms still seemed “one-sided” to her.
“We’re paying for nonexistent employees while (CCS) ramps up — phantom employees,” Head said in an interview afterward. “And we’re not going to get a benefit, if we reduce our population, that is going to be one-for-one.”
The 21/2-hour budget hearing at times became as heated as the sheriff’s long-running dispute with Landrieu over the amount of money needed to satisfy a list of court-ordered jail reforms designed to improve conditions at OPP.
State law requires the city to pay for inmates’ care and provide a “good and sufficient jail,” but Landrieu and Gusman have vastly different views on what that entails. The sheriff and mayor have been at odds for many months, with Landrieu’s administration accusing Gusman of mismanaging his finances and profligate spending, and the sheriff accusing the mayor of disregarding state law and years of jurisprudence.
Gusman has contended that the medical services contract, which became effective this month, was necessary for his office to have any chance of complying with the medical and mental health care provisions outlined in the federal consent decree he signed with the U.S. Justice Department. City leaders, however, maintain the contract negotiations lacked transparency because Gusman failed to hold public meetings during the selection process.
Echoing Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s criticism of Gusman’s contracting practices, Head told Tidwell he needed to brush up on Louisiana procurement laws. “You really need to be familiar with them because you can’t make decisions behind closed doors,” she said. “It’s just not copacetic in Louisiana.”
A significant chunk of the money Gusman wants to spend next year would go to the scores of new deputies he wants to hire to increase staffing in the jail. OPP remains plagued by rampant violence, and court-appointed experts and inmate advocates routinely blame a lack of supervision by guards.
To underscore the lack of manpower, Tidwell said current staffing levels “absolutely, unequivocally” would prevent the Sheriff’s Office from fully opening the 1,438-bed jail Gusman intends to open in early January. Without new deputies, the Sheriff’s Office would be able to open only 20 percent to 30 percent of the $145 million facility, Tidwell estimated. “We just simply don’t have the staff,” he said.
Gusman said he plans to ask Orleans Parish voters again to consider a ballot measure, rejected by 53 percent of voters on Nov. 4, that would free up money from an existing property tax to be spent on jail operations; at present, the money must be used for construction projects.
Gusman refused to speak to a reporter after the hearing, and his spokesman, Philip Stelly, said he did not know when the proposition might return to the ballot.
Gusman’s deputies also revealed Thursday that the Sheriff’s Office, as of Jan. 2, will discontinue its electronic monitoring program for juvenile and adult criminal defendants, which is funded by the city and operated by the Sheriff’s Office.
The program came under intense scrutiny after a local youth in September allegedly violated the terms of his electronic supervision twice in the hours before he fatally shot a Domino’s pizza delivery driver in Mid-City.
Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin, who defended the program even after the shooting death of Richard Yeager, told council members that the Sheriff’s Office determined it could better utilize the personnel assigned to the monitoring in opening the new jail.
Councilman Jason Williams said the council is committed to finding another provider of the electronic monitoring service.
If council members were taken aback by Thursday’s budget hearing, the Landrieu administration seemed thoroughly aghast. Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, said after the hearing that Gusman’s contract with Correct Care Solutions shows city officials will be expected to pay far more than the roughly $2.4 million a year they anticipated spending on the treatment of acutely mentally ill inmates.
That special-needs population has long suffered at OPP, according to court-appointed experts, and U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the jail overhaul, ordered in August that those inmates be housed temporarily at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel until the city and Sheriff’s Office agree on a long-term plan for where to hold them.
Africk’s order required the city to pay more than $400,000 for renovations and supplies to house up to four dozen mentally ill inmates in the retrofitted facility, more than 60 miles from New Orleans, and an additional $203,500 each month for staffing, food and fuel.
But Kopplin said Thursday that Gusman’s contract with Correct Care Solutions appears to include an additional $3.4 million for mental health services to be provided at the Hunt facility on top of the amounts authorized by Africk.
“Obviously, we have tremendous concerns about this contract,” he said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.