Conditions at Orleans Parish Prison remain so oppressive that local inmates should be moved to more humane settings outside the city if Sheriff Marlin Gusman can’t get the city’s long-awaited new jail building open by next month, a corrections expert told a federal judge Thursday.
The court-appointed expert, Susan McCampbell, said the Sheriff’s Office has made headway in implementing a federal consent decree that requires wholesale changes in the way inmates are housed and treated.
But she drew an unexpected line in the sand at a hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court, echoing frustrations voiced by inmate advocates over the ever-shifting timetable for opening the $145 million new lockup.
Gusman has described the 1,438-bed facility, once expected to open in January 2014 but repeatedly delayed, as a solution to the systemic violence and poor physical conditions that continue to define OPP nearly two years into a federally monitored effort to overhaul the jail.
He has most recently committed to opening the new facility on Sept. 15, and late Thursday, he issued a news release saying that by mid-September, he expects to close the Conchetta and Templeman V facilities, the temporary housing units known as “The Tents,” and the old prison.
In the past, though, each new opening date has proved to be a mirage.
While McCampbell’s recommendation isn’t binding, Gusman appears to be taking it seriously. His office has been talking with other jurisdictions about housing a contingent of Orleans Parish inmates while the sheriff and Mayor Mitch Landrieu continue to debate whether New Orleans needs to build yet another jail building.
Carmen DeSadier, the sheriff’s chief corrections deputy, said the Sheriff’s Office has been “working actively with other parishes, coming up with mutual agreements to house our inmates in the event we have to do that.”
Even if the new jail opens next month, Gusman, who has pushed for the construction of a so-called Phase III jail facility, has said it will not be large enough to accommodate the existing population of more than 1,800 inmates.
“It’s certain that we will have no choice but to move several inmates out of the parish because the new facility is just not going to hold everyone,” DeSadier said.
Blake Arcuri, an attorney for Gusman, said the Sheriff’s Office believes that between 500 and 700 inmates will need to be “outsourced” to other parish jails due to the new building’s limited capacity.
The cost, he said in an interview, “is going to be tremendous” — anywhere from $38 to $70 per inmate per day. It’s unclear which parishes have jail facilities that would be acceptable to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the OPP consent decree
Attorneys for Landrieu, whose administration is required by state law to pay for inmate care, declined to comment on McCampbell’s recommended deadline. A Landrieu spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Even as McCampbell lauded the progress made by the Sheriff’s Office in recent months, her recommendation reflected a growing sense of urgency among her team of monitors that was only heightened by a recent visit to OPP.
Margo Frasier, a former sheriff in Austin, Texas, who is monitoring correctional practices at OPP, described the jail as having an “unacceptable level of violence for human beings to be in.”
“There aren’t enough Band-Aids to put on the problem,” Frasier said.
Another member of McCampbell’s team, Dr. Robert Greifinger, likened the jail’s conditions to the “charnel houses” of the mid-19th century. He described the jail as “an incubator for violence” and stress, among other things.”
“It’s really unconscionable,” he said.
Harry Grenawitzke, who is tasked with measuring sanitation and environmental conditions at the jail, said he has been “tremendously impressed” with improvements in food service. But he said inmates have been destroying electrical wiring at the jail faster than it can be replaced. Plumbing problems remain unabated, he added.
“The conditions in those buildings are so deplorable,” he said of the jail. “The showers are so filthy you can’t clean them any more. It’s impossible to clean them. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in my career.”
DeSadier said current plans call for moving about 360 inmates into the new jail during the first part of the transition. Those inmates are being held on medical tiers and in the Conchetta and Templeman V facilities, which, like the 1920s prison, are dilapidated and outdated.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.