A day after Sheriff Marlin Gusman transferred nearly 200 inmates from New Orleans to jails in northeastern Louisiana, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration asked a federal judge late Friday to forbid Gusman from housing city inmates in other parishes without first removing hundreds of state prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison.
City Attorney Sharonda Williams, in sharply worded court papers, told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk that the sheriff had kept city officials in the dark about Thursday’s transfer of 180 inmates to Franklin and East Carroll parishes, and that his only communication with City Hall included a promise to forward all related invoices to the city for reimbursement.
At least 70 additional pretrial inmates are expected to be transferred out of the parish in coming days.
Even though they face pending criminal charges in New Orleans, the sheriff contends those inmates will not fit inside the new $145 million jail scheduled to open Monday.
But Williams wrote “there is no question there is sufficient bed capacity” for the city’s inmates between the new 1,438-bed jail and the 300-bed Temporary Detention Center, which the City Council has authorized to remain open for the next 18 months as an overflow facility.
The jail’s total population now stands at about 1,800 inmates, but that number includes more than 300 state prisoners — a group Landrieu has demanded on several occasions be removed from OPP.
The city’s court filings revealed that the Landrieu administration, which under state law must pay for the care of local inmates, will be on the hook indefinitely for $30 a day for each inmate sent to Franklin and East Carroll parishes — a rate that Williams said was brokered without city input and that exceeds by some 20 percent what the state typically pays local sheriffs to house Department of Corrections prisoners.
Williams accused the Sheriff’s Office of “publicly flouting its responsibilities in an attempt to increase its budget and influence.”
She said the transfer of pretrial inmates, which caught defense attorneys off guard, appeared to be motivated by Gusman’s long-running campaign to construct another multimillion-dollar jail building in New Orleans to supplement the facility opening next week.
“The only possible explanation is that the sheriff is hoping to cripple the criminal justice system in order to build support for a larger jail,” Williams wrote. “The sheriff is disrupting hundreds of criminal prosecutions and increasing the cost to taxpayers in hopes of forcing the city to spend $85 million on another jail building.”
It was unclear Friday when Africk might take up the city’s motion, which seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Gusman.
Africk, who is presiding over a federally mandated and monitored series of reforms at OPP, generally has been reluctant to intervene in the frequent bickering between the Sheriff’s Office and City Hall, saying he prefers for the political process to run its course.
Gusman’s attorneys had not filed a response in federal court as of late Friday evening. They previously have defended the sheriff’s housing of state prisoners, pointing to a regional re-entry program run by Gusman that they say has reduced recidivism. Nearly 130 state prisoners at OPP were enrolled in the program as of last month.
Williams, however, said it is “absurd” for the city to pay other parishes to house its pretrial inmates even as the state pays the sheriff “a fraction of the cost to house DOC inmates in the facility built by the city’s taxpayers.”
“The expense,” she added, “is the product of yet another contract negotiated behind closed doors, whose terms are not known to the city or the public.”
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said Friday that she was “extremely disappointed” by the sheriff sending pretrial inmates several hours away.
“He has done this unilaterally,” Guidry said, “and at great financial cost to the citizens and taxpayers of New Orleans.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.