“All parties to this case agree that mass incarceration is bad for individuals, families and the community as a whole, and that it is in the interest of the city to incarcerate as few people as safely as possible.” KATIE SCHWARTZMANN, attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center
The battle over the blueprints for the city’s new prison complex stalled in federal court on Friday, when the judge handed the confusion over to the New Orleans City Council to sort out.
At the center of the debate is whether Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will be allowed to build the bigger jail he’s long wanted, despite a city ordinance that caps its size at 1,438 beds.
The city, the sheriff and the group of inmates that sued them both last week filed a joint motion in federal court that said the Mayor Mitch Landrieu would propose letting Gusman build an additional phase to the complex, raising the bed count by 250. That concession infuriated inmate advocates who have long sought to rein in the city’s sky-high rate of incarceration.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the class of inmates in the litigation, filed a motion on Friday seeking to quell the “substantial amount of public confusion around the issue.”
The group’s signature on the city’s motion was meant only to acknowledge the mayor’s proposal, not to endorse it. The law center does not, Friday’s filing emphasized, approve of building a larger jail, and its leaders are annoyed that the issue remains unresolved after months of debate.
“That frustration aside, the decision as to whether New Orleans needs an additional jail building will affect the next several generations of New Orleanians,” attorney Katie Schwartzmann wrote the court.
“All parties to this case agree that mass incarceration is bad for individuals, families and the community as a whole, and that it is in the interest of the city to incarcerate as few people as safely as possible. New Orleans has historically had an astronomical incarceration rate.”
Two buildings are currently under construction — the only two buildings that were supposed to be built under the 1,438-bed cap. Last week’s proposal would allow a third building to be constructed in between them.
The city ordinance capping the bed count at 1,438 was passed in 2011 after a drawn-out public debate. The law also required the sheriff to accommodate all types of inmates within that number, including women, those with mental health or medical needs and inmates in protective custody.
But that didn’t happen. When the Southern Poverty Law toured the construction site in May and found no infirmary, no place for mental health services, no space for inmates on suicide watch, no disciplinary isolation cells and no tiers to isolate child offenders or those in protective custody from the general population. The jail consisted solely of 60-person dorms.
Attorneys for the law center, along with the Department of Justice, filed a scathing report in federal court blaming Gusman for failing to comply with the ordinance.
The sheriff scurried to retrofit the blueprints. His architects evidently found a way to fit in prisoners with medical or mental health requirements, but failed to figure out how to create smaller cells to house smaller groups, like the child prisoners — usually numbering about a dozen — that must legally be kept separated from the general population.
Landrieu said the sheriff’s failure to follow the ordinance could be more easily fixed by building another building, rather than trying to jury-rig the existing facilities.
“At this point, with construction well underway, it is a more cost-effective use of taxpayer money to build a new building with mental and medical health beds than to retrofit the facility currently under construction by the sheriff,” the mayor’s spokeswoman, Garnesha Crawford, wrote.
But the law center on Friday wrote the judge that building the third building should be a last resort.
Schwartzmann asked the judge to treat the question of the jail’s size as a political issue, not to be worked out in a courtroom, and requested a delay to allow time for public hearings before the City Council.
“The larger the jail that we build, the more difficult and expensive it will be to control, and the more dangerous it will be for everyone in the jail given the current resource limitations,” she wrote, and requested a “brief extension of time to allow for a swift political examination” of the problem.
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk agreed, and canceled a hearing scheduled for next month.