New jail agreement

In an about-face that has stunned inmate advocates who have long sought to rein in the city’s soaring rate of incarceration, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration granted Sheriff Marlin Gusman his perennial request: a bigger jail.

The city this week offered to scrap an ordinance capping the jail’s bed count at 1,438 and agreed to allow the sheriff to construct an additional jail building. The two-building prison complex now under construction is scheduled to open early next year.

The administration’s concession abandons the requirements laid out in a 2011 law passed by the City Council and signed by Landrieu after a drawn-out public battle and pledges that the jail’s capacity would not be expanded.

That ordinance required the sheriff to accommodate all types of inmates within the facility currently under construction, including women, those with mental health or medical needs and inmates in protective custody.

But the plan went awry in May, as negotiations over the federal consent decree over the notoriously violent jail grew increasingly combative.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the civil rights claim that led to the prison reform deal, toured the construction site 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 Center, along with the Department of Justice, filed a scathing report in federal court blaming Gusman for failing to comply with the ordinance.

Gusman lashed back in response. He mocked the Center and the feds, touting his jail designers’ credentials and saying the critics “apparently believe themselves to be master jail planners.”

He called their claims “flawed and uneducated.”

But at the same time he apparently conceded that the blueprints for the jail under construction would need a major, last-ditch overhaul to accommodate the special-needs prisoners.

Last month, he told the federal judge overseeing the consent decree that the jail’s designers were scurrying to rearrange the blueprints to bring the facility in line with the city ordinance’s requirements.

They evidently failed.

“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 in a prepared statement in response to a request for an interview.

Crawford blamed the mess all on Gusman: “It is 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.”

The sheriff has nearly $50 million in unspent FEMA funding, which Crawford said would be used to construction the third building, which she promised would include “no more than 250 mental health, medical and substance abuse beds.”

That brings the total number of beds up to 1,688.

The documents filed in federal court Tuesday lay out plans to keep an old jail facility open to house such inmates until the third building can be constructed on a sliver of city-owned land in between the two buildings currently rising off Poydras Street. It does not specify an anticipated size, cost or number of beds. The parties agreed to meet Thursday to hash out the details, and promised that a written update would be provided to the court by Friday.

The filing was written on Department of Justice letterhead and signed by the federal government, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the city and the sheriff.

Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s New Orleans office, declined to comment. Neither the sheriff’s in-house spokesman nor his public relations firm responded to an emailed list of questions, including his desired number of beds.

Until this week’s announcement, plans for a third jail building had long been dormant.

Gusman has often criticized the cap on the jail’s capacity, arguing that 1,438 beds is far too few to house the city’s criminals. He has asked for more than 3,000 beds in total.

But advocates for reducing the city’s sprawling prison population have argued that more prison beds serve only as encouragement to imprison more people. The number 1,438 was agreed upon years ago after a heated public debate.

“It is certainly outrageous that we find ourselves at this point; that only now, two years later, this issue is coming to light,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project, who has advocated for reducing the city’s prison population. “We should have seen this coming. The ball was dropped. The sheriff should have better planned, the city should have been monitoring and leading the process.”

The population of Orleans Parish Prison currently stands just shy of 2,400, more than two-and-a-half times the per-capita average of jails in major American cities.

Tuesday’s joint proposal means the City Council would need to amend the ordinance to allow construction to continue on the first two buildings — one a kitchen, warehouse and power plant, the other housing for inmates — to nix the requirement that the beds inside accommodate all special-needs prisoners.

The City Council would also then have to pass other laws to clear the way for the third building.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said Thursday that she will be “reviewing the data very closely to determine whether a third building is indeed necessary and, if so, what the purposes and capacity of that facility should be.”