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New Orleans Wants to Make Its Notorious Jail Bigger

Activists say the sheriff is trying to add jail beds under the guise of mental health treatment.

Activists rally at the New Orleans Criminal District Court
OPPRC

New Orleans Wants to Make Its Notorious Jail Bigger

Activists say the sheriff is trying to add jail beds under the guise of mental health treatment.


In October 2016, a year after New Orleans opened its new jail, Jaquin Thomas, a 15-year-old being held at the adult jail, died by suicide. His family eventually filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the sheriff’s department. Seven months earlier, a 61-year-old man killed himself at the jail. The deaths have persisted since then. And in January and February of this year, there were 28 suicide attempts inside the jail.

The current New Orleans jail, the Orleans Justice Center, opened in 2015 to replace Orleans Parish Prison, which had been partially destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. The old jail was known for deaths, abhorrent conditions, guard abuse, and poor medical care. In 2013, after the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Orleans Parish over poor conditions, the sheriff’s office entered in to a federal consent decree with the Department of Justice to implement certain reforms at its jail.

Now, the city is moving forward with plans to make the Orleans Justice Center even larger. The jail is not in compliance with the consent decree; it lacks basic psychiatric facilities to house and care for people in need of mental health treatment. The sheriff’s office has been detaining men with mental illness in specialized cells at a state prison since 2014, but the state has decided to stop housing them in October due to the “continual increase” of prisoners with mental health needs. As a result, the city is facing a looming problem over where to house them.

In March, Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the consent decree, ordered the city to immediately begin planning and designing the renovation of the Temporary Detention Center, a warehouse-like jail that was supposed to be demolished in 2017, as well as the new jail wing in order to incarcerate people with mental illnesses. But advocates are calling on the city to renovate the existing Orleans Justice Center instead.

The old jail was one of the biggest in the country. The Orleans Parish Prison had more than 7,000 beds before Hurricane Katrina and about 3,500 available beds afterward. The new jail has 1,438 beds. A working group convened by then Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2010 determined that the bed count was the best size for the new jail after consulting with experts and community members. The group stated at the time that the city should allow the new jail to be opened only if it met certain conditions, which included the facility being able to accommodate prisoners in need of substance use or mental health treatment.

The solution is to care for people with mental illnesses and everyone in the jail, because we see how everyone’s going through trauma in there.Sade Dumas, executive director of OPPRC

In 2011, the City Council passed an ordinance for the smaller jail. Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the jail director opposed the capacity, at one point proposing a jail with 4,300 beds. Gusman had argued that the ordinance would interfere with public safety and that building a 1,438-bed facility that could accommodate all types of detainees was not feasible.

Just a few years after opening the new jail, the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office proposed a new wing to incarcerate people with mental health issues—as well as renovating the Temporary Detention Center as a short-term solution while the wing is being built. The new wing would have 90 beds. Advocates from the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition sued the city and Sheriff Gusman last year over their use of the detention center. They say the sheriff is trying to expand the number of beds in the jail under the guise of treating people with mental illnesses.

“We’re at the 1,438-bed cap legally,” Sade Dumas, executive director of the prison reform coalition, told The Appeal. “And since then, there have been multiple attempts to oppose that bed cap, and to practice in a way that would make someone believe the bed cap doesn’t exist.”

Instead of expanding the jail, Dumas said the sheriff should work on renovating part of the existing jail to accommodate people with mental illnesses.

“The solution is to care for people with mental illnesses and everyone in the jail, because we see how everyone’s going through trauma in there. There are people only out for an hour a day,” Dumas said.

“There is a consensus in the community that you do not associate the care of people with the construction of additional jail beds.”

The sheriff’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Although the Orleans Parish Justice Center was supposed to help address the poor conditions people lived in at Orleans Parish Prison, many of the issues moved to the Orleans Parish Justice Center, including multiple prisoner deaths from suicide and of those going through drug withdrawal. Since 2016, the jail has had a death rate that’s nearly twice the national average. Details of Jaquin Thomas’s death symbolized the jail’s poor response to people at risk of suicide. According to the New Orleans Advocate, after Jaquin hanged himself, no one noticed his body for 90 minutes. For Dumas, an expansion of the jail means the number of people who may be harmed in the jail expands as well.

People lose their jobs, people lose their families, they lose so much of their lives, simply because they’re stuck in a building.Sade Dumas, executive director of OPPRC

“Treatment for the general population is really poor. People leave more traumatized than they were when they went in,” Dumas said.

Most of the people in the jail are awaiting trial, and many are there solely because they cannot afford bail. According to a 2017 study from the Vera Institute of Justice, nearly a third of people detained on alleged felonies in New Orleans were incarcerated until the end of their case because they couldn’t afford bail. For people accused of misdemeanors in the municipal court, one in five people were incarcerated because they could not afford bail.

“If we just step back and look at the collateral consequences of incarceration, people lose their jobs, people lose their families, they lose so much of their lives, simply because they’re stuck in a building,” she said. “Because they’re usually too poor to pay bail bond or a fee.”

The jail population in New Orleans has decreased significantly, although it is still above the national average. At the same time, the crime rate in New Orleans has steadily gone down.

“We have one of the most dangerous jails in the country,” Dumas said. “People have actually died in there. So we don’t want to build additional jails and increase the capacity for harm to be done against our community members.”