Sheriff Gusman keeps jail plans under wraps

Where Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman plans to house mentally ill, sick and suicidal inmates remains a mystery just six months before he plans to open a spiffy new jail facility along Interstate 10.

According to court filings, Gusman’s “design team” is scrambling to craft an eleventh-hour plan to meet the demands of both the city and a federal judge overseeing a raft of jail reforms.

Within weeks, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is slated to decide on the initial price tag — and who will pay it — for the jail fixes outlined in a deal that Gusman, inmate advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice signed in December.

Africk also wants to know that the new jail is up to snuff, and with so little time, critics fear that the sheriff is about to resurrect a long-dormant idea to build an additional facility, adding cost and bed space to a jail complex that was the subject of a drawn-out public battle.

In federal court, attorneys for Gusman have forcefully rebutted allegations by inmate advocates and federal officials that the new, 1,438-bed jail won’t be able to handle all types of inmates, as required under a city ordinance.

But at the same time, they appear to have conceded that the new building will need a major jury-rigging to do so.

In a July 11 letter to Africk, Gusman attorney Blake Arcuri asked for a delay in responding to the judge’s concerns over the new facility, writing that the sheriff’s design team was busy crafting “temporary and long-term solutions” to the problem.

Arcuri called the work “a substantial undertaking.”

According to the letter, the Sheriff’s Office and the city are in discussions and expect to report to Africk by Aug. 1.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, said the city is still waiting on the sheriff to produce a plan.

Gusman has said he expects to cut the ribbon on the new jail by January.

“We are expecting the sheriff’s experts to advise us on what they think is the best solution to resolve the issue of making sure all types of prisoners are accommodated,” Kopplin said. “I do know they have their architect working on this issue.”

Neither Gusman’s spokespeople nor Gerald Hebert, a principal of the architectural firm that designed the new jail, responded to requests to discuss their plans.

The issue looms large as Gusman and the city prepare to return to federal court on Wednesday to resume a hearing over just how much the city must pony up for renovations to a jail facility notorious for inmate violence, rampant contraband, unsanitary conditions, scant mental health care and thin staffing.

The city argues that bad management and misspending — not a lack of money — is to blame for any unconstitutional conditions in the jail.

Africk was clearly peeved when the Sheriff’s Office waited until the morning of a hearing that began last month to turn over 2013 financial documents. He continued the hearing until this week.

The judge has said he plans to rule on the financial issues after another hearing scheduled for early August, though he has encouraged Gusman and Landrieu to mend fences and resolve the funding dispute on their own.

That doesn’t appear likely.

For critics, the specter of a new addition to the jail complex is worrisome. Norris Henderson, of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said it’s a question of size.

“How big are you talking about? Everything was supposed to fit inside the original building,” he said. “Everybody’s just waiting, holding their breath to see what’s going to happen from the court hearing.”

In public meetings leading up to the February 2011 ordinance authorizing the jail construction, Gusman repeatedly insisted that the new jail would meet the demands of all inmates.

And at a church event attended by about 300 people last year over jail concerns, both Gusman and Kopplin issued public pledges to keep the new jail complex at 1,438 beds, save for some possible additions for inmates in re-entry programs aimed at helping them transition to freedom.

But in a scathing legal filing in May, the Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center — which filed the inmate civil rights claim that led to the reform deal — found that the new jail lacks an infirmary and room to keep potentially suicidal and mentally ill inmates apart from the general jail population.

According to that filing, the new jail also lacks enough separate cell space for the smattering of juveniles being tried as adults.

In response, Gusman argued that the jail’s building plan always had a third phase, in addition to the new jail and a massive nearby kitchen facility — both of them largely funded by FEMA.

At the same time, however, the legal filing mocked the Southern Poverty Law Center and the feds, touting the jail designers’ credentials and saying the critics “apparently believe themselves to be master jail design planners.”

“The (1,438-bed) facility will be able to house medical, mental health and special needs inmates, including suicidal prisoners, despite the flawed and uneducated contentions of the plaintiffs.”

The sheriff, however, has yet to reveal just how. As it stands, the city ordinance requires the old jail facilities to be torn down, except for modular units that house 400 inmates and can stay up for 18 months.

At stake, in part, are millions of dollars — maybe tens of millions — in FEMA funds that could be spent on more jail space, or perhaps on other capital projects in the city.

In court and in public, the Landrieu administration has griped about the new $80 million jail kitchen facility — equipped with candy and doughnut makers — to suggest that Gusman went hog wild with taxpayer money.

Other than Gusman’s pledge — he has said he doesn’t think 1,438 beds is enough but he will make do — he has stayed largely mum of late on the jail size issue.

Gusman originally argued for more than 3,000 beds, while proponents of a smaller jail feared that if he built such a large facility, it would inevitably be filled.

Kopplin confirmed the possibility of more jail space at a City Council hearing last year, but said Gusman rebuffed his invitation to offer a proposal to a Landrieu-appointed task force that hasn’t met in over a year.

In the meantime, the new jail moves closer to completion.

Katie Schwartzmann, New Orleans director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she hopes the sheriff can modify the new jail to better serve inmates with special medical needs, as well as juveniles being tried as adults and other populations, though she anticipates that it will be costly.

A new building would take years to rise.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that we are in this position” just six months before the jail’s planned opening, she said.

“It’s unclear how basic provisions were not made, but I guess it’s not helpful to focus on that. We need to decide how we are going to fix it, as quickly and with the least public expense as possible.”