The New Orleans City Council should follow the unanimous recommendation of the City Planning Commission denying the permit request to build a new mental health prison. It saves the city $189,000,000 in capital and operating costs over a 35-year life. There are more than enough beds in the existing jail to house the needs of the 89 beds for the mentally ill, an infirmary, a clinic, administrative space, and visitation required in the federal consent decree.
According to criminal justice experts, the New Orleans jail population continues to decline and is projected to reach 998 in 2020, well under the jail capacity of 1,438. Assisting those efforts is a $2 million grant as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety & Justice Challenge. Hopefully, the council will insist on eliminating money bail which results in debtors’ prison for the un-convicted poor and will further reduce population by approximately 400.
Mental health experts remind us that mental illness should be treated as a health problem, not a crime problem. We should invest monies saved as a result of renovating rather than building new into earlier treatment interventions and deflection and diversion to appropriate therapeutic care, not a jail. Serious mental illness often requires life-long management, and we should question whether incarceration appropriately treats this disease. The triage facility for the mentally ill in Baton Rouge serves as a 21st century model for appropriate mental health policy.
Due to an expiring lease, there are currently 25 New Orleanians with acute mental illnesses at Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel who are scheduled to return home in April of 2020. The jail consent decree requires that we provide adequate, and constitutional, services and space for this population, but we currently lack the facility to do so. To meet this goal, it is far more cost effective and faster to retrofit our existing jail facility than waste taxpayer dollars on unnecessary temporary fixes, like renovating the Temporary Detention Center.
Retrofitting the existing jail to house the 25 pre-trial detainees returning from St. Gabriel would cost $10 million and take 10 months with a nominal increase in annual costs. We have the space to do so. In comparison, an additional jail building will cost $46 million and take three years to build, with an annual operating cost of about $8 million. Present-valuing these figures bring us to the $189,000,000 that we could be saving on a retrofit.
The decision is clear: retrofit the current jail and save the city $189,000,000. Retrofit is a prudent solution to accommodate people living with serious mental illnesses in already existing space, and it brings us into compliance with the federal consent decree much quicker. Building another jail thwarts the progress we have made and ignores the transformation of our criminal legal system. Let’s do the right thing.
executive chairman of the Board, HRI Properties