Gusman will close House of Detention

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The Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office will begin closing one of its facilities, the city-owned House of Detention, beginning today, Sheriff Marlin Gusman announced this afternoon. Gusman, speaking at a press conference outside the construction site for the Orleans Parish Prison's (OPP) new kitchen and warehouse facility, set to open later this year, said the decision came partly as a result of criticism from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), including a report released just this week which found OPP to have a particularly high number of sexual assaults.

"Certainly the mounting criticism, the inspections by the federal people," were a factor in the decision to close the House of Detention, Gusman said today.

The most recent report by the Review Panel on Prison Rape included testimony from former OPP inmates who claim to have suffered multiple rapes at the jail and say they received little protection from sheriff's deputies. Gusman claimed that DOJ chose not to include his office's rebuttals to the findings.

That, in turn, came less than a week after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit against Gusman citing inhumane conditions at the jail. See this week's lead news for more on that.

(More after the jump)

The move will displace 628 inmates — including 400 convicted state prisoners serving their terms inside OPP. Those inmates, Gusman said, will be sent to other facilities throughout the state. The state is working on finding those accommodations, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde wrote in an emailed statement to Gambit.

"Sheriff Gusman notified [Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James] Le Blanc late Monday evening of his decision to close HOD. The Department is currently in the process of making arrangements to accommodate the approximately 400 state offenders that will need new housing assignments. We'll first fill any vacancies we have at the state level and then assign the remaining offenders to parish and private jails on the local level as space is available."

Last month, the U.S. Marshals Service pulled 20 federal inmates from the jail, pointing to safety concerns. Asked whether the state — perhaps concerned about ongoing federal investigations into OPP conditions along with the many lawsuits pending against the Sheriff's Office — requested that inmates be moved to other parishes, Laborde wrote that the decision was Gusman's alone.

"The decision to close HOD was made by Sheriff Gusman. The Department supports the sheriff's decision and will work with him over the next several days to safely reassign the 400 DOC offenders to other facilities across the state."

100 more state defendants — still awaiting a trial or sentencing — may or may not be sent to other parishes. The remaining 100-plus local inmates will be sent to other facilities within OPP.

"HOD currently accounts for inmates in mental health treatment, maximum security, protective custody and disciplinary, as well as some youthful offenders awaiting trial," Gusman said. “These special populations will be shifted to other sheriff’s office facilities according to classification, security rating and available space.”

That, he said, will be more expensive than housing them here, and the city will have to bear those costs. (This, however, doesn't apply to post-conviction state inmates, the largest group being moved, Laborde told Gambit. State law sets a rate of $24.39 per inmate per day for local parishes to house those prisoners.)

At several points throughout the announcement, Gusman took the opportunity to criticize city government for, he said, failing to adequately fund the operating costs of the prison, which has more than 3,000 inmates most days.

He also took the city to task for dragging its heels on the new 1,438-bed intake and housing center set to open in 2014. Initial OPSO plans called for HOD's closure to correspond to the opening of that building, Gusman said, but, “The delays in approving the construction of this building made that impossible.”

“Another piece in this master plan includes a second housing building,” he said. “FEMA funds are available to construct this building. However, the city must take action” to approve it. (A task force appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu recommended a 1,438 cap to the new jail's size, citing the jail's disproportionately large current population. City Council approved that recommendation last year.)

Finally, Gusman said that the closure of such a large facility in OPP would have "consequences for city government and the community."

“Some services provided by the Sheriff’s Office today may have to be eliminated or reduced," including, he said, "inmate assistance to coroner’s office, cleaning services for NOPD district stations and garbage and trash collections after Mardi Gras parades."

Landrieu administration officials were not immediately available for comment. See below.

Update: When I was speaking to DOC spokeswoman Pam Laborde about this, she told me that, to her knowledge, there are no post-conviction state inmates inside HOD, which wasn't entirely clear from what Gusman said today. Gusman spokesman Marc Ehrhardt just sent out this clarification:

Please note that the OPSO will transfer 400 state inmates, who have been sentenced, beginning in the next two days. These inmates are NOT housed in the House of Detention, but are spread across the 6 facilities currently housing inmates.

To make room for the 628 Orleans Parish inmates, the Sheriff’s Office had to identify available space or make space in the other OPSO housing facilities. To accomplish this, the OPSO identified 400 state inmates who could be transferred, clearing the way for inmates living in the HOD to move into the other 6 jail housing facilities.

There are NO state inmates currently living in the House of Detention.

Update 2: Statement from the Landrieu administration via spokesman Ryan Berni

“Reducing violent crime and reforming the criminal justice system has
been the Mayor’s top priority since taking office. As part of those
reforms, we must have a jail that meets our needs— one that keeps our
city safe, protects civil liberties, and operates in the best interest
of Orleans Parish taxpayers. Today’s announcement by the Sheriff
appears to be a step in that direction.

“Mayor Landrieu created a working group by executive order to help
make research-based recommendations on the jail size of the Orleans
Parish Prison complex, which led to the groundbreaking for a new
1438-bed jail facility. The Jail Working Group agreed there was still
work to be done as it relates to future use of city-owned property
which previously housed Templeman III and IV and evaluating how many
additional jail beds will be needed for local prisoners, state DOC
prisoners, re-entry programs and mental health and substance abuse
beds. That work and research continues at this time. As we have
stated consistently, public safety will be always at the forefront of
decisions made on these matters now and in the future.

“The City is committed to funding the jail appropriately. We largely
support moving away from the current per diem structure, which is part
of an existing consent decree between the City and the Sheriff and
which requires a judge’s order before changes to the per diem system
can be made. The per diem structure is not used in most places and
has sometimes been unpredictable as it relates to the City’s budget.
We will continue working with the Sheriff and the City Council on
moving toward establishing a fixed annual appropriation for the jail.

“Sheriff Gusman has been an active partner in our fight against crime.
We look forward to continuing to work with him as we reform New
Orleans’ criminal justice system.”

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