Orleans jail

The Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, La. Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

The independent administrator in charge of running the city's jail presented a wide-ranging plan Wednesday for improving conditions at the lockup, a long-awaited blueprint intended to accelerate the hiring of new deputies and reduce inmate violence. 

The administrator, Gary D. Maynard, also recommended that the city construct an 89-bed addition — a separate building often referred to as a Phase III facility — to accommodate Orleans Justice Center inmates suffering from serious mental health issues.

The plan, which did not include a price tag or identify a funding source for the new building, called for a significantly smaller structure than the one long proposed by Sheriff Marlin Gusman — underscoring the diminished role the sheriff has played since he was essentially stripped of his duties last year as part of a deal to avoid a complete federal takeover of the jail.  

Maynard, who answers only to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, offered an ambitious plan that, if executed, would bring the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office into compliance by October with a class-action settlement that requires sweeping changes in the treatment of inmates.

The settlement, known as a federal consent decree, remains largely unfulfilled more than three years after it was supposed to take effect — a crisis that led to Maynard's appointment last year. 

Maynard's "remedial action plan" calls for the removal of all juvenile detainees from the Orleans Justice Center and includes a proposed staffing chart and training deadlines that would allow the Sheriff's Office to bring back more than 400 Orleans inmates currently awaiting trial in East Carroll Parish, in northeastern Louisiana.

Gusman sent those inmates there last year because the Sheriff's Office does not have enough deputies to staff the Orleans Justice Center. Maynard said the cost of that arrangement is untenable.

Under the proposed plan, all juvenile inmates will be housed within the city's Youth Study Center, which is undergoing an expansion.     

The city's new jail, which opened in September 2015, was designed to employ a strategy known as the "direct supervision model." But Maynard said this approach has not been possible in the facility due to the chronic shortage of trained staff. 

Hiring new deputies has been among the greatest challenges facing the Sheriff's Office, which has attributed the problem largely to low starting salaries that Gusman has blamed on the mayor and City Council.

The office recently hired a new human resources director who, among other duties, will be tasked with jump-starting recruiting and improving the agency's tarnished image.  

Emily Washington, a lawyer who represents the city's inmates, said she remains "very concerned about the high levels of violence at the jail and about the lack of trained staff and supervisors to care for the persons in OPSO custody."

"We think it has to be a top priority for (Compliance) Director Maynard to aggressively and expeditiously recruit leadership from outside of the Sheriff's Office to come and assist him in the necessary reforms," said Washington, an attorney for the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. "This job is too big for one person to do alone, and OPSO currently lacks the internal expertise."

Maynard called for an analysis of jailhouse attacks that have occurred over the past 18 months, an approach he said he has used to great effect in other jurisdictions to reduce inmate violence. The study, he added, will track both the inmates involved — including "demographic information" — and the floor supervisors on duty when an assault occurs. 

The remedial action plan also calls for a shake-up in Sheriff's Office policies regarding reserve deputies and a separate review of deputies' off-duty security details, a long-controversial Sheriff's Office program that recently resulted in the convictions of two high-ranking deputies, including Gerald "Jerry" Ursin, who served as Gusman's chief deputy.

The plan also prioritizes the hiring of a new chief correctional deputy and seeks to cut down on the amount of overtime worked by deputies. 

Gusman's proposal for a Phase III building has generated controversy for years, particularly among advocates seeking to reduce the city's high inmate population. The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition recently delivered a petition to Maynard and city leaders bearing the signatures of more than 1,000 people who oppose a jail expansion. 

The sheriff, however, has insisted a new building is needed not only to provide medical and mental health treatment to inmates — key tenets of the consent decree — but also because of the sheer size of the city's inmate population.

The new $150 million jail has 1,438 beds but can house only 1,294 inmates because certain groups of detainees must be housed separately from the general population.

As of Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office had 1,485 inmates in its custody, nearly 500 of whom were being held outside the parish. The new jail was not designed to accommodate mentally ill inmates, a population currently being housed at a state prison facility in St. Gabriel.

Maynard's recommendation did not address funding for the Phase III jail addition, though Gusman has said it could be funded by millions of untapped hurricane recovery dollars.  

"In all of the years since I began the effort of consolidating a sprawling prison system into a much smaller, self-sufficient Orleans Justice Complex, I have advocated for the construction of a facility to address the mental health needs of our jail population," Gusman said in a statement Wednesday. "This collaboration with Director Maynard should put to rest all of the back-and-forth that ultimately led to the OPSO going to court to sue to move this mental health facility forward."

Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has vehemently opposed Gusman's plan for another building, pushing instead for a renovation of the new jail that would allow it to offer medical and mental health services. Maynard said such a remodeling would reduce the jail's capacity too significantly to be worthwhile.

The proposed new two-floor facility would bridge the Orleans Justice Center and the sheriff's nearby kitchen and warehouse facility. It would include 77 beds for male inmates and 12 beds for female inmates with "acute and sub-acute mental health needs." It also would include an inmate infirmary and a medical clinic adjacent to the mental health housing units, as well as additional attorney visitation rooms for inmates.

Landrieu aide Tyronne Walker issued a statement Wednesday night saying the administration supports Maynard's recommendation for a small new building.

"The Phase III proposal from the compliance director is reasonable and necessary, as it is limited to a small number of beds specifically for medical and mental health needs," the statement said. "This plan is a far cry from the sheriff’s proposal for hundreds of unnecessary jail beds. Our goal all along has been to build the right size jail, only as large as necessary." 

Maynard's proposal says "the procurement of design and construction services to complete all recommended Phase III facilities modifications and additions will be managed by the City of New Orleans."  

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.