More than two years ago, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance hailed as a landmark step towards ending the city’s reign as the incarceration capital of the country.
The law limited the new prison facility, now rising off Perdido Street, to 1,438 beds. It came after a hard-fought battle, with months of public hearings, pledges from politicians and activists with signs reading “1,438 Cap!”
But now, more than two years later, those plans have been scrapped. Another building seems inevitable, one that may house hundreds of additional prisoners.
The City Council this week requested reams of paperwork, in preparation for another raft of public meetings. The question before them this time will be twofold, one councilwoman said: how big the city’s jail should be, and what consequences, if any, should befall the sheriff for flouting their original law.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu told a federal judge last week that he will not enforce the 2011 ordinance and asked the council to rewrite it. Even so, the mayor blamed Sheriff Marlin Gusman for violating the 2011 law by constructing a two-building jail that lacked certain basic facilities: an infirmary, small tiers for special populations, mental health facilities, a laundry room. As a result, the mayor reasoned, a third building must be built.
“We’re in such a pickle now,” said retired Judge Calvin Johnson, who two years ago served on the committee that eventually came up with the magic number of 1,438. “And part of the reason that we’re in this pickle is because the sheriff ignored that ordinance.”
Johnson described himself as “frustrated” that the entire, lengthy process is about to be rebooted.
Some of the others who participated in the original negotiations had harsher words to describe what they see as a betrayal: “To increase the size of the jail at this moment would not only be a blatant disregard of the democratic process, it would be a capitulation to the kind of racialized fear-mongering that has held this city hostage for far too long,” the activist Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition — one of whose leaders, Norris Henderson, served on the committee — wrote in a statement this week.
Most stakeholders seem to be in agreement that Gusman violated the law:
“This unfortunate situation is the result of the Sheriff’s failure to adhere to the 2011 ordinance passed by the Council,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry wrote in a statement.
“It’s a shame that the Sheriff did not follow the law and failed to honor his commitment to construct a facility that could house all types of prisoners,” Landrieu’s spokeswoman said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, whose federal lawsuit against the sheriff sparked the looming federal consent decree, wrote in court filings that “the new jail facility is not compliant with New Orleans Municipal Code Ordinance 24282, and cannot become legally functional.”
Johnson even pointed to wording of the original ordinance that warned of the potential of criminal consequences if the law’s mandates weren’t followed: “Whoever does anything prohibited by this ordinance or failed to do anything required to be done by this ordinance shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be subject to a fine or to imprisonment.”
But Gusman disputes that he broke the law: “The Sheriff’s Office is and will be in compliance with the ordinance,” his spokesman wrote in an email, though he did not respond to requests for elaboration.
Guidry said that Council President Jackie Clarkson will call a meeting of the council’s Committee of the Whole to take up the issue of jail size. That committee includes all seven council members, who must first vote in committee, and then a second time at a regular council meeting.
That meeting has not been scheduled, and Clarkson did not respond to requests for information on when it might be.
Councilwoman Stacy Head, who proposed the original 2011 ordinance, said that the debate that year about jail size was the best exercise in good government she’s seen in her time in office: The mayor took the lead, everyone with an opinion was engaged, experts weighed in and real data was presented. They decided on 1,438 beds, signed it into law — and now it must be redone.
“Is it right? No. Should we be in this place? No. Are we going to have to deal with it? Yes. At the end of the day, the issue is that he broke the rules and now we have to pay for it,” Head said. “Practically, we are going to have to build another jail.”
The mayor said that construction on the 1,438-bed facility now underway was too far along for retrofits, and it would be more cost-effective to build an entirely new facility that has the amenities still needed. Landrieu said he’d support constructing a new building provided it had no more than 250 special-needs beds.
That would bring the total number of beds to 1,688. Over the years, the sheriff has requested many hundreds more than that, although more recently, he has proposed a new facility with roughly 600 more beds.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission — whose president, Rafael Goyeneche, served on the jail-sizing committee in 2011 — recently issued a report saying the new facility would need to be even larger than that, with perhaps 800 new beds. A smaller jail, the commission argued, will require the release of dangerous criminals.
Head said the council’s first order of business will be to figure out what’s required to turn the facility into a functional jail, and whether that requires additional beds. The second will be to decide if anything can be done about the sheriff’s violation of the original ordinance.
Johnson said he hopes that the community doesn’t give up, and once again engages in the process.
It’s an opportunity, he said, to decide, albeit a second time, what citizens want the future of incarceration in New Orleans to look like.
The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition said it intends to soon write an open letter to the mayor about what they expect in the latest debate over the new jail. The group wants to hold the line at 1,438 beds.
“We understand that the road to meaningful reform is long and hard,” the group said in a statement. “But we must begin the journey in earnest. Building a bigger jail will not solve our city’s problems. Let’s start to talk about what will.”