By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer
Mayor Mitch Landrieu made a surprise appearance at a more rambunctious second public hearing tonight to hear testimony about the size of a new jail.
Several times during the hearing, hecklers interrupted Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, and he struggled to maintain control of the room.
“I’m doing my best. I’m not doing very well,” Kopplin said, about his efforts to control the crowd.
The event was a public hearing by the mayor’s Criminal Justice Working Group, which Kopplin leads, to gather more input before it makes a recommendation to Landrieu by Nov. 22.
Amid a tempestuous atmosphere, the audience raised many new concerns, compared to the first hearing on this issue in the 9th Ward on Tuesday night.
Marjorie Esman with the ACLU of Louisiana won applause for saying that working group is only making a decision on the size of the city’s portion of the new jail. She said the group should be considering Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s jail complex as a whole, including state prisoners and federal prisoners. She added that the fact that Gusman has already begun work on a kitchen and warehouse facility, and has planned more of the jail, “leads to the impression that this whole process is a sham, that this is already a done deal.”
Kopplin said the committee is looking at the jail “as a single package.” Even so, Kopplin told The Lens in September that “the sheriff’s gotta run his jail,” when asked if he was concerned about Gusman building 400 temporary beds that will add to the capacity of the jail, at least in the short term.
Esman wasn’t the only person asking about housing state prisoners in the city jail.
“Why does the city of New Orleans want to house state prisoners?” asked Ellen Tuzzolo with the Justice Policy Institute.
Kopplin said the housing of state prisoners was historic in Louisiana, although unusual in the country, and that it was under consideration by the group.
One audience member asked when Gusman will close the existing facilities in his complex, if his proposed 1,438-bed jail building is built.
“Although the sheriff says he supports a smaller jail, we’ve been presented with no actual plan for closing down OPP [Orleans Parish Prison] and other facilities,” said Alison McCrary with the Sisters of St. Joseph. “We need a concrete answer as to if, how, and when the old facilities will be decommissioned. We ask that the working group here recommend that if the working group approves it, we need a written plan from Gusman saying when he’s going to do it.”
Kopplin said the working group could make a recommendation to the mayor that includes demolition of the old facilities.
At first, instead of addressing the substance of McCrary’s question directly, Kopplin responded by drawing attention to the fact that McCrary had not addressed Gusman as “Sheriff Gusman.” Kopplin felt that McCrary’s manner of address could be construed as hard on Gusman, an elected official. Kopplin asked McCrary, and the rest of the audience, to be “hard on the problem and soft on the people,” a request he made often at the first hearing on Tuesday night.
Some audience members appeared to interpret Kopplin’s reaction as a defensive one.
“I’m wondering if you’re hearing that people are angry?” Kate Drabinski said. “Instead of this insistence that we stay really polite when our communities are falling apart.”
“I did not mean to ask anybody to lock up their passion or their anger,” Kopplin said. “But we did have somebody on Tuesday night who gave an offensive note to the sheriff, it was unacceptable, it was regrettable, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Drabinski also raised the possibility that the new 1,438-bed facility will necessitate building another facility further down the line because of what it lacks.
“No medical or mental health facilities are planned for the phase two buildings,” she said. “The new facility and the kitchen and warehouse facility will be built on opposite sides of the city owned property, necessitating the construction of a third facility.”
Drabinski urged the committee to include mental health and medical facilities in the new jail expansion. She also raised the possibility that the public meetings are taking place after a decision has been made.
“While the new plan will cost some extra money, and that is one of the problems with making plans first and holding public meetings later, it will be in the best interests of New Orleans in the long run,” Drabinski said.
Titus Lin from the Louisiana Justice Institute said it doesn’t make sense for Gusman to build his jail on a lot two blocks from the kitchen and warehouse facility that he’s already building.
“It seems like this is a collaborative project,” Lin said. “We should resolve the land use issue so that the buildings are on contiguous lots.”
Much of the audience comment tonight criticized the group for having such a tight deadline.
“Even 2,000 beds is so much larger than the national average, why are we prioritizing this institution?” asked Rosanna Cruz with Voice of the Ex-Offender. “It feels like there’s a false sense of urgency where we feel we have to pick a number and go with it.”
Kopplin said the group was trying to make a quick decision because the conditions in the current jail are so bad.
Several other people raised concerns about the transparency of the process.
“Our interest is in the openness and accountability of the process, and we’re most interested that this committee will use best practices as it thinks about the size of the facility, and be open and clear about what it’s talking about,” said Linda Usdin, from the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, a group of which The Lens is a member. “Specifically we want information on the total size of the new jail complex, and not just the new facility. And the total cost.”
Landrieu slipped out after 30 minutes without addressing the group.