In the face of a looming housing crisis for dozens of inmates with mental health problems, a federal judge has handed New Orleans officials a deadline of late February to come up with a temporary solution.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said the city and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office have until Feb. 25 to craft a plan for housing male inmates who are set to be kicked out of a state prison in St. Gabriel in October.

In a court order last month, Africk called the situation “dire” and criticized the city for dragging its feet on building a permanent structure with 89 beds for mental health inmates. 

“Despite repeated assurances from the city, little progress has been made. As the court advised the parties, action must be taken on an emergency basis to avert a crisis,” he said.

As a stopgap, jail officials hope to renovate a warehouse-style building at a cost of $4 million to $4.5 million while the city builds a long-stalled permanent structure. The city could be on the hook for the cost of the renovation, according to an attorney for the Sheriff's Office.

Yet in comments underscoring the depth of the dilemma, Sheriff Marlin Gusman said that even if the stopgap renovation begins soon, he doubts it will be finished by October.

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Renovation work underway and also in the planning stages at the Temporary Detention Center at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans on Friday, February 8, 2019. Blake Arcuri, general counsel for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, stands next to Lt. Terry Braun.

The roots of the current crisis stretch back years, if not decades. In a 2009 letter to Gusman, investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice said the local jail routinely failed in its duty to protect inmates with mental health problems.

Suicides were frequent. Booking policies were deeply flawed — one inmate who reported at intake that he had attempted suicide five times was not referred to a doctor. The jail also had woefully few nurses and physicians.

The Justice Department investigation helped lead to a 2013 reform agreement, called a consent decree, between the jail and advocates for the inmates. Among dozens of mandates, the jail promised to provide adequate care for inmates with mental health problems.

Recognizing that the parish jail was in no shape to host those inmates, the Sheriff’s Office decided to send dozens of male inmates with mental problems to the state’s Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, near Baton Rouge.

The Sheriff’s Office signed an agreement with the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections in December 2014. It has continued to house male inmates there since, at a cost of roughly $2 million a year.

In the meantime, on an average day about 15 women with mental health problems are held at the city's main jail, the Orleans Justice Center, to Africk’s dismay.

The state prison was never supposed to be a permanent solution. In addition to the new Orleans Justice Center, with 1,438 beds for general population inmates, Gusman wanted the city to construct a building for special-needs inmates, both male and female.

Under state law, the city is responsible for providing the sheriff with buildings. Gusman has repeatedly expressed his disappointment that the Orleans Justice Center, which opened in 2016, did not include specialized space for mental health inmates.

Since then, the city and sheriff have been engaged in the lengthy process of planning a dedicated mental health facility on Perdido Street next to the main jail complex. Yet despite a favorable City Council vote in May 2017, and tens of millions of FEMA dollars at the city’s disposal, ground has never been broken on the facility.

LaToya Cantrell, now the city's mayor, was the sole City Council member to vote against advancing the proposal.

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Renovation work underway and also in the planning stages at the Temporary Detention Center at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans on Friday, February 8, 2019.

With the new building in apparent limbo since then, state officials forced the matter last year when they announced that Elayn Hunt would no longer be available past October 2019.

Jail director Darnley Hodge Sr., who took over supervision of the jail after Gusman was sidelined by an order from the judge in 2016, warned the court last month that the issue was an “emergency.”

Hodge proposed retrofitting the warehouse-style Temporary Detention Center, which was opened in 2012 to house inmates who could no longer be placed elsewhere because of damage from Hurricane Katrina to other facilities.

The Sheriff’s Office would like to rehab four wings of the building to house about 50 male inmates and 15 female inmates.

Since the city could take years to build the new permanent structure, renovating the Temporary Detention Center could represent a cost savings over the St. Gabriel Prison, said Blake Arcuri, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office.

But the city could be forced to pay for the renovation itself if it cannot find other sources, which might include FEMA funds.

On a recent tour of the temporary building, Arcuri explained how the Sheriff’s Office would replace older-model toilets and hard-edged bed frames, which can be used to hang makeshift nooses, with rounded ones. Parts of an airy dormitory would be partitioned into individual cells.

The building would also include dedicated space for doctors and lawyers to meet with inmates, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

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Renovation work underway and also in the planning stages at the Temporary Detention Center at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans on Friday, February 8, 2019.

The short-term renovation plan has the support of Gusman, the sheriff said recently. However, both Gusman and Hodge have expressed concern about how quickly even the temporary holding center can be finished.

“I doubt it,” Gusman said when asked if October was a realistic timeline. “I think we're going to put our heads together and try to come up with a solution.”

City officials have so far remained mute on what sort of a solution they will provide to Africk at the end of the month. A spokeswoman said the city’s answer would come in the form of a court filing.

Africk has made it clear that he expects a full, detailed response. The judge said he wants “granular solutions and a timeline.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432