In all the discussion about Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) — from the execrable conditions there (see Clancy DuBos' column, "Violent Jail, Violent City," Feb. 26, 2013) to the proposed federal consent decree — one idea stubbornly keeps bubbling up: building a bigger jail. It happened again at a meeting of the New Orleans City Council's Criminal Justice Committee last week, and it's something New Orleanians need to watch closely — and skeptically. Simply put, New Orleans doesn't need a bigger jail; it needs a better jail. One that is safer, more secure, more humane, more transparent, more affordable, and more accountable. In other words, one that is constitutional.
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman came to the council committee meeting to provide an update on OPP's two major FEMA-funded construction projects: an $81.5 million warehouse and kitchen building set to open later this year; and a $134 million intake, administration and housing building set to open in February 2014. Gusman told the council that FEMA pays only for one-to-one, or "brick for brick" replacement of what previously was in place. For purposes of the FEMA dollars that fund it, Gusman says the latter facility will replace OPP's old Templeman III and Templeman IV jail buildings as well as the former Intake Processing Center. Gusman told Gambit earlier that the kitchen and administration building will replace similar facilities damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
The sheriff was predictably tight-lipped with media on the subject of recent federal charges against two former high-ranking employees. He was more than happy to talk about another controversial subject, however: building a new jail larger than the 1,438-bed facility the City Council previously authorized. This time, Gusman took a new tack.
In 2011, to secure the council's approval for rebuilding his jail on city property, Gusman agreed to decommission the jail's older housing units, capping the former 7,500-bed jail at 1,438 — a move backed by prisoners' rights advocates and supporters of alternatives to incarceration. The lower number was based on recommendations from a 2010 task force consisting of experts from across the New Orleans criminal justice community. At the time, everyone agreed that 1,438 beds would suffice, and Gusman acquiesced.
At last week's meeting, however, Gusman asked council members to consider allowing him to add a new unit — located on publicly owned land between the new kitchen/warehouse and the new jail facility — to accommodate the jail's medical and mental health needs. It would replace the old Templeman I and Templeman II facilities, which were demolished in 2008. Why? Because the 1,438-bed building will not be fully equipped to handle acute mental health patients, Gusman says.
The original plan for the new OPP, which included an inexplicably large open area between the kitchen and the new jail facility, was questioned at council meetings in the past. Gusman had said it would be green space, but skeptics wondered why the buildings shouldn't be pushed together. Many suspected that Gusman knew all along what he wanted to do with the space, and his latest pronouncement proves them correct. The mental health justification for a new jail building represents a new stratagem, but the sheriff's end game remains the same: he wants a bigger jail.
Obviously OPP must provide adequate medical and mental health services to inmates, but it does not need an entirely new building — with many additional beds — to do that. Running a constitutional jail is a big part of the sheriff's job. Building a hospital or clinic is not. Gusman's claim that FEMA projects must be "brick for brick" is not entirely accurate. While "brick for brick" is one preferred formula for FEMA reimbursement, the agency has a proven record of working with local entities to rebuild smarter, not just newer. In OPP's case, experts agreed years ago that the smart way to rebuild is with a 1,438-bed limit. Gusman should not be allowed to use Katrina, mental health or the jail's long history of poor management and violence as an excuse for tossing aside the agreed-upon bed limit.
Which brings us to another factor: OPP is the subject of a class-action lawsuit, which appears likely to result in a federal consent decree. The basis of the lawsuit is a long list of alleged constitutional violations at OPP, ranging from inhumane and unsanitary conditions to stabbings and rapes. Until Gusman proves he can run a jail that passes muster, he should not be allowed to expand his empire.
Providing adequate medical and mental health services at OPP is not negotiable. Nor is an increase in the number of beds.