A group of like-minded criminal justice reform advocates has been soliciting donations to buy a full-page ad in The Times-Picayune this week to protest what it calls Sheriff Marlin Gusman's plan to expand the Orleans Parish jail. The group claims Gusman's proposed new jail ultimately will house about 5,800 people, up from its existing 3,552 beds. Gusman says their figures are incorrect.
The advocates hope to start a citywide conversation about the proposal by soliciting donations of $22.39 to pay for the ad — the daily cost the city pays the sheriff for each inmate. The group also is asking donors to consider what else the city could spend the $22.39 on.
"We're hearing everything from mental health programs, after-school programs, to better street lights and fixing the potholes in the French Quarter," says Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which is leading the effort.
The ad will cost $12,000, Kaplan says.
"In just a few days we have had about 250 contributions, and we've raised over $5,000 in grass-roots donations," she says. "I think what we're seeing is definitely a groundswell of support for reform of Orleans Parish Prison. This is just through email solicitation and word of mouth. The donations are coming from all kinds of likely and unlikely allies. We're seeing contributions from former judges, former City Council members, local musicians, average citizens."
"A jail comfortable for our community needs to be no more than 857 beds," says Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of The Ex-Offender (VOTE), which supports the effort. "We've been locking people up for convenience."
According to the group, Orleans Parish Prison currently houses 3,500 inmates, 2,700 of whom are "city prisoners." That represents the highest rate of detention of any urban jail in the country and is three times the national average, the group says. There also has been a series of documented civil rights issues relating to conditions at the jail.
Gusman responded in an emailed statement through his public relations firm, the Ehrhardt Group. He questioned the statistics cited by the advocates, saying, "All of the projections from the Juvenile Justice Project and percentages relative to our population are wrong."
The sheriff says he actually wants a smaller, more efficient jail complex of about 4,200 beds, pointing out that the pre-Katrina jail facility housed more 7,500 inmates.
"This special-interest group's willingness to allow the current inmate housing situation to continue, while pursuing its own agenda, is short-sighted and a threat to public safety," Gusman said of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. "Demanding an artificially small facility just to satisfy a quest for national comparisons, in other words to wish New Orleans to be safer, is unrealistic and it puts the public's safety at risk."
The full text of the proposed ad and Gusman's response can be read on Gambit's blog (www.blogofneworleans.com). — Matt Davis