In response to community concerns, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday said it will delay final action to let the Orleans Parish Sheriff greatly expand his prison.
Though council members approved a zoning matter for the prison Thursday, they said they will wait to vote on a related measure until a newly formed mayoral advisory group studies the issue and makes a recommendation.
In advance of the council meeting, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement asking that the council reject the plan to increase the capacity to more than 5,800 beds.
That statement came after a report by the Mid City Neighborhood Association said that Sheriff Marlin Gusman had “informed the group that the new jail will have 4,500 beds but the filing with the City Planning Commission indicates there will be 5,832 beds.”
Residents lined up at the podium to speak against the proposal, demanding that the issues be brought before a vote of the people. Gusman was not at the meeting.
Albert “Chui” Clark called it “business as usual,” but Councilwoman Jacquelyn Clarkson insisted the people had spoken with a 3-to-1 vote in favor a bond issue.
Speaking on behalf of the ACLU, attorney Barry Gerharz stressed the need for the advisory group to make decisions based on “evidence and expertise, not politics”
According to the ACLU, the proposed prison would create the largest per-capita prison in the country.
Councilman Arnie Fielkow answered the opposition by stating emphatically, “Your voices are being heard that is why it is being slowed down”
Councilwoman Stacy Head, whose district includes the prison near Tulane Avenue and Broad Street, said the advisory group is a sign of new collaboration between all parties interested in the criminal justice system.
“This group will start immediately evaluating the proper sizing of any to-be-constructed prison facilities, along with other necessary considerations that impact the size of the prison, including payment methods, arrest and detention policies and alternatives to pre-trial detention,” she said. “I believe that the current structure of this group will allow meaningful debate and different perspectives to be considered.”
The group will include a representative from the mayor’s office; a yet-to-be-hired criminal justice coordinator; the deputy mayor in charge of capital projects; and representatives from the city attorney’s office, the police department, district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office, Head’s council office, the council’s criminal justice committee, Safe Streets/Strong Communities, and The New Orleans Crime Coalition.
Technical assistance will be provide by The Vera Institute, the deans of the local law schools and a representative from the U.S. Department of Justice.