City Council again takes up jail-size debate in N.O.

Panel: Limiting beds to 1,438 unlikely

A New Orleans City Council committee acknowledged officially for the first time on Tuesday that it probably won’t be feasible to limit the number of beds at the local jail to 1,438, the cap set by the council almost three years ago in an effort to reduce the city’s notoriously high incarceration rate.

The council’s Criminal Justice Committee signed off on a proposal to allow Sheriff Marlin Gusman to continue operating one of the existing jail buildings that were supposed to shut down after a new 1,438-bed facility opens next year, though it capped the number of extra inmates he can hold at 500.

It’s become clear over the past few months that the new dormitory, one of two buildings in the new jail complex, isn’t properly designed to hold special inmate populations, including those who require medical or mental health services. As a result, the sheriff will likely need another permanent facility.

In the meantime, the council’s motion, if it passes the full council and the City Planning Commission, will keep open a building known as Templeman V, which was partially damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

Jail experts will still have to weigh in on exactly how big a facility will eventually replace Templeman V, but the preliminary vote raised concerns right away from inmate advocates who have long argued that New Orleans is putting too many people in jail.

Audrey Stewart, from the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledged that limiting the size of the jail won’t in itself cut the number of people the city incarcerates, which also depends on policies adopted by the police, courts and district attorney.

“But one thing we also know is that larger jails tend to be filled,” she said. “And if there’s a finite cap, there’s a lot more incentive to look at those policies.”

Norris Henderson, a local activist and former prisoner, didn’t protest the plan to keep Templeman V open for the time being, But he said he worries that if the council doesn’t impose permanent restraints on the jail size now, before elections early in 2014, the council could end up with a new slate of members who are less committed to whittling down the number of inmates.

“I don’t see anybody who has announced that they are running for office that’s willing to carry this water,” he said. “That’s my greatest fear.”

The discussion, which lasted just over an hour, amounted to a rehashing of issues the council and advocacy groups have been debating for the past four years, touching on the grim statistics about how many people Louisiana imprisons and questions about why the mentally ill are in jails to begin with.

But council members ultimately felt their hands were tied. In an interview last week, Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee and has been a leading proponent of a smaller jail, said there does not appear to be any feasible way of redesigning the 1,438-bed facility already under construction to accommodate special populations.

For now, council members, the sheriff and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration have decided that keeping some of the existing jail facilities open for longer than expected will be the only way to handle all of the prisoners the jail is legally obligated to house.

No one has spelled out exactly what happens next, but City Attorney Sharonda Williams mentioned Tuesday that the team of independent experts who will monitor the new consent decree for the jail, a court-ordered reform plan, includes someone who specializes in jail size. Williams said that official will be on the ground in a matter of weeks to help determine whether a third building is necessary and how big it will have to be.

Templeman V, which would serve inmates with medical and mental-health needs in the interim, will likely need renovations in the meantime in order to serve that function.

Gerald Hebert, the sheriff’s architect, asked council members to give him more flexibility to use existing buildings than is spelled out in the motion passed on Tuesday. He said limits on which buildings can stay open and for what purposes may end up causing the Sheriff’s Office to waste money if, for instance, Templeman V turns out to need more work than anticipated.

Neither Williams, representing the mayor’s office, nor any of the council members present seemed inclined to give the sheriff any additional leeway, and the motion was approved without amendment, although it could still be revised as it makes its way through the full council and planning commission.