Crews will get back to work on building the new $145 million Orleans Parish Prison, at least temporarily, after a Civil District Court judge on Friday suspended a stop-work order the city had issued this week in its long-running feud with Sheriff Marlin Gusman over the design of the new building.
The order means construction can continue at least until the two sides meet again in court July 8 to hash out the city’s claim of “flagrant violations” of city law in the design. The city’s opposition is based on the claim that the 1,438-bed jail cannot accommodate inmates with special mental or physical health needs.
Judge Kern Reese spent about a half-hour meeting privately with both sides before wrapping up the issue in a matter of minutes from the bench, saying that allowing the stop-work order to remain in effect could create serious problems for the construction project if workers or equipment are shifted to other jobs.
He issued a temporary restraining order preventing the city from trying to halt construction until the next hearing in the case.
The city issued the stop-work order on Wednesday, arguing that the building involves “flagrant violations” of the city ordinance authorizing its construction because it is not equipped to house all inmates, including those with mental health issues or special medical needs.
The order was the latest escalation in a long-running feud over the size and capabilities of the jail and comes as the two sides are also sparring over the ongoing cost of housing inmates.
“The jail currently under construction is still not compliant with city code,” Landrieu administration spokesman Brad Howard said in an emailed statement Friday. “We continue to urge the sheriff to follow the law and abide by the terms authorized by the City Planning Commission and the City Council and look forward to making our case.”
The administration has argued the fourth floor of the jail should be redesigned so it can accommodate inmates with medical needs, a change the city claims would cost $7 million.
But the Sheriff’s Office has said such changes are no longer feasible this late in the construction process — the new jail is supposed to open in August — and that it needs to build another, $80 million building to house a variety of types of inmates, including juveniles and those with special needs.
In a statement, Gusman blasted the administration and said the stop-work order was “the city’s attempt to deceive the public into supporting its improper agenda” and “deflect the public’s attention from the real crime problem that the city is facing this year.”
That’s a key issue, for underlying the dispute is a fight over whether the new jail’s 1,438 beds are enough to hold the city’s entire inmate population in the foreseeable future. Gusman claims more beds will be needed.
The city is required to pay for the care of inmates without being given a say in how the Sheriff’s Office spends its resources, which led the City Council to blast Gusman even as it approved more millions for his office’s 2015 operations last week.
Gusman said city inspectors have had full access to the construction site and the administration always has been aware of the new jail’s design and capabilities.
“The (Sheriff’s Office) is 100 percent committed to building a constitutional jail that will make the city safe, for all individuals,” he said. “Building a constitutional jail that can accommodate the current inmate population and special-care population paves the path to improving public safety. However, in order for a constitutional jail to be built, all parties must be willing to work together toward this goal.”
The Sheriff’s Office was originally scheduled to transfer prisoners to the new jail in August, but the stop-work order could delay that. James Williams, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, said it was not clear how quickly workers could be brought back to the site or how the work stoppage will impact the overall schedule.
“We had all this downtime with people sidelined,” he said. “That’s why this stop-work order was so unfortunate.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.