Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman appeared before the New Orleans City Council Criminal Justice Committee meeting yesterday. And while the sheriff was predictably tight-lipped with media on the subject of indictments against two former high-ranking employees, he was more than happy to talk about another controversial subject: building a new jail larger than the 1,438 facility the City Council authorized in 2011.
Gusman, who came to the meeting to provide an update Orleans Parish Prison's (OPP) two major FEMA-funded construction projects: a
$74 million $81.5 million warehouse and kitchen building set to open later this year, and a $134 million $145 million intake, administration and housing building, set to open in February 2014. (Correction: The budget figures Gusman quoted to the City Council this week only represented construction, rather than construction and design, costs.) FEMA only pays for one-to-one replacement of what was previously in place. For the purposes of the FEMA dollars that fund it, the latter facility replaces the Templeman III and IV jail buildings and the former Intake Processing Center.
In order to secure the council's approval, Gusman agreed to decommission the jail's other housing units, capping the formerly 7,500-bed jail to 1,438, a move backed by advocates for prisoners' rights and alternatives to incarceration. The jail is currently the subject of a prisoner class-action lawsuit which appears likely to result in a federal consent decree. And its per-inmate per-day funding structure has been called a "perverse incentive" to keep inmates inside as long as possible.
At the meeting, however, Gusman asked council members to consider a new unit — located on publicly owned land between the new kitchen and the new housing facility — to accommodate the jail's medical and mental health needs, with a replacement of the Templeman I and II facilities, which were demolished in 2008. The 1,438 bed building will not be fully equipped to handle acute mental health patients, he said.
Gusman said he believed federal funding would be available for such a building, though he added, he had only held vague "conceptual discussions" of a design with city government. (Last summer, the Lens obtained fairly detailed correspondence between Gusman and Andy Kopplin, the city's chief administration office, as well as design schematics for a 650-bed housing and medical facility.)
Councilwoman at-large Jackie Clarkson indicated support for the idea.
"You're going to need another building," she said. "I'm saying that as budget chairman, whatever it takes."
Mental health represents a new tack in the debate for Gusman, who said yesterday he originally planned for a 3,500-bed jail. In the past, he has relied on capacity, saying the 1,438 cap is far too low to meet the city's needs. That argument is supported by Dr. James Austin, a jail expert who advised Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Criminal Justice Working Group on needed capacity for OPP. Yesterday's jail population was about 2,200 — about 1,900 of whom are local pretrial detainees — Gusman said. In August, Austin said that a best-case scenario for OPP average daily population by 2015 is about 1,600.
In public comments following the hearing, former prisoner and founder of Voice of the Ex-Offender Norris Henderson blasted the idea of building a new facility under Gusman's watch, mentioning OPP's alleged human rights abuses as well as the recent indictments of former sheriff's office director of purchasing John Sens and former head of maintenance Gerard Hoffman for bribery.
"All this contractor fraud going on and we're still talking about building?" Henderson said.
Judge "blindsided" by plans to reduce courtrooms in new juvenile jail
Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Lagarde told the Criminal Justice Committee that judges were left out of the city's plans for a new 40-bed Juvenile Justice Center. The building, which is now under construction, will only have four courtrooms, even though state law now designates six judges for Orleans Parish.
When the city first began planning the center, "We were asked to participate to show that our needs would be met," Lagarde said.
"But over the last several months, the administration has not come to us at all, and has made huge changes," he said. "We didn't know about the four courtrooms until two weeks ago."
He said the judges were informed of the change just one day before the ceremonial groundbreaking on Feb. 5. At that ceremony, Chief Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine Gray said the plan was an "intrusion" into the judicial branch.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose administration characterizes the court as bloated, plans to back state legislation that would reduce that number to three. Landrieu points several studies recommending reduction, including a 2010 caseload analysis by the State Supreme Court's Judicial Council suggested the city needed only one Juvenile Court judge.