By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer
Update: Read a post on the second hearing here.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group on Tuesday held the first of two public hearings to get the public’s input on the size of a new jail.
Testimony was outspoken and broadly critical of the city, the group, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, and plans for a new jail.
Some in the crowd were in favor of a new jail to improve on conditions at the existing jail complex.
“Just because they committed a crime does not mean they have to live like savages,” Harolyn Bonner said. “Let’s give them a better jail and a means of learning — 99 percent of them can’t read or write. And let’s not send them off somewhere. People have families that want to visit them.”
“I only spent one night in the jail and I’m disgusted,” Brenda Palmer said. “The conditions are inhumane.
Others stressed the importance of building a jail based on the national average for incarceration per capita of population, about 800 beds, not 2,000 or 3,000, as is planned.
“Anything larger will only encourage the continuation of years of an endless cycle where people are arrested and re-arrested for minor crimes,” Sue Weishare said, from the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.
Weishare’s group distributed a list of unanswered questions about the jail.
Some said the committee was wasting energy that could be spent better elsewhere.
“One of the biggest problems is we don’t have no schools,” Ward McClendon said. “If we put this kind of energy and time into schools, then we could eliminate some of these prisons.”
Many raised the disproportionate impact of the city’s criminal justice policies on African Americans.
“Black people in OPP [Orleans Parish Prison] stay on average twice as long as white people for the same crimes,” Maggie Zambolla said. “I would like the working group to take a race-conscious approach.”
At times, real hostility surfaced between members of the crowd and the panel.
The Rev. Raymond Brown handed Gusman a piece of paper with a racial slur on it, referring to Gusman, which Gusman screwed up, saying it was disrespectful.
Brown then said he expected the council to vote for a jail expansion “because everybody’s in cahoots.”
Kopplin reminded Brown to be “hard on the problem and soft on the people.”
Others raised concerns about the cost of the new facility.
“We need a better facility,” said Marojrie Esman with the ACLU. “But the question then is, what is this going to cost? We don’t know if FEMA is paying the whole thing, we don’t know if there are limits to the amount that FEMA has committed. We have no idea what the dollar amount is going to be, and that is a question that must be answered before you people can make any kind of recommendation whatsoever.”
Many criticized the working group for having a confused scope and an unrealistic timeline.
“There’s no way I could see that you guys could possibly get all of this done by Nov. 22, which is two weeks from now,” said Titus Lin, from the Louisiana Justice Institute. “For the working group to have meaning it must conduct meaningful deliberations, it must clarify the scope of its authority, and have more time to do its work.”
One lady suggested Gusman should not be blamed for all the injustices in New Orleans.
“Our city has become a sick place, and it is not Marlin Gusman’s fault. It’s the fault of the failure of our schools, and the failure of other systems,” Beulah Labostrie said. “I have 20 great-grandsons who live around here. And some of them have lost their way, and when they come out, they can’t get a job.”
Some said state prisoners shouldn’t be in the Orleans Parish jail, where the facilities aren’t favorable to rehabilitation.
“I don’t think we need to be in the business of housing DOC [Department of Corrections] prisoners,” said Norris Henderson, with Voice of the Ex Offender. “We really need to look at that 950 state prisoners, because in a state facility they’re going to get access to better re-entry facilities. It goes back to education. We don’t need to send our kids to the prison to be educated.”
There were points made about financial openness and the funding of the new jail.
“All of the documents that do exist, they’re not public. I think people would like to get a chance to see these numbers,” Alan James said.
“We have got to use this opportunity to end the per diem financing structure of Orleans Parish Prison,” said Dana Kaplan with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. “We can’t be happy with just being two times worse than jail systems everywhere else.”
One lady said her son, a paranoid schizophrenic with bipolar and attention deficit disorder, had spent five months in the jail.
“I rang every day, I missed work to try to get him released,” said Denise Grinds. “And then they put him in a work release program. How is he going to work when he’s mentally ill? These prisons are being built to house the mentally ill, because they’ve got nowhere else to go.”
One little girl said her father was in prison.
“I just want to say that I don’t like OPP and I hope that my daddy comes out of jail from there, and I love him,” Rikailah Mathieu said.
The panel tried to answer some of the points from the crowd.
Kopplin said the school system is spending $1.8 billion to rebuild 80 new schools. The crowd protested, saying the schools aren’t going to be built in the 9th Ward.
“This is not an expansion of the Orleans Parish Prison,” Kopplin said. “It’s already shrunk from 7,500 beds to 3,500 and it will get smaller. The question is not do we expand the prison, it’s to what size do we shrink it?”
Kopplin said FEMA would pay for the cost of the new jail.
Jackie Clarkson was booed for sticking up for the sheriff, describing him as “innovative” and not responsible for many of the problems associated with the jail. Gusman told the crowd that his plan does not amount to an expansion, and that the new jail would be “consolidated, better, safer, more secure for everybody.”
Councilwoman Susan Guidry said she had “every faith” that 2011 would be the last year that a per diem system is used to fund the jail.
The working group will hold another public hearing Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Dryades Street YMCA.