Group studying New Orleans jail size may consider adding 1,000 beds to complex

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Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s jail working group will meet again in October, and it could recommend another 1,000  jail beds on top of the 1,438 that the City Council has already given Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman the go-ahead to build.

The group will convene Oct. 19, the first time in 12 weeks. The administration said it couldn’t meet until a final report on the appropriate number of jail beds was prepared by a consultant working with the National Institute of Justice, James Austin. The group first met Oct. 15, 2010 after Landrieu charged it with recommending a final number of jail beds by Nov. 22 – a task the group has not accomplished yet.

Advocates for capping the number of jail beds at a new facility being built by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman held up signs at a City Council hearing in January. Photo by Matt Davis

While the agenda for the meeting is not set, it is likely that the group will finally focus on the overall number of beds at Gusman’s new jail, having avoided the topic for months. Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni confirmed in an email that the administration expected Austin’s jail beds report to be completed before the meeting.

“We are awaiting a revised analysis from James Austin in order to have the current data we need to make final decisions,” Berni wrote. “We have always agreed to be data driven, and we continue to follow that pattern.”

Though the working group hasn’t set a final number, the City Council gave Gusman the go-ahead to start work on a 1,438-bed facility in January, based on the working group’s recommendation. It also said the working group should continue working on a number of other issues, such as how the sheriff is compensated for housing city inmates, before it settled on an overall number of beds.

Austin originally recommended 2,450 beds in November, after a preliminary analysis of data from Gusman’s office. Those numbers were based on the administration instituting a pre-trial services program aimed at getting nonviolent offenders out of jail more quickly, and reducing the number of state inmates housed in Gusman’s jail.

Reached via telephone this afternoon, Austin sheepishly admitted that he’s not the fastest worker and said his updated projections have not changed  much.

“That’s right. I’m just slow,” Austin said. “I’ve updated the projections. You’ll see the report, but the basic trends haven’t changed too much.”

Advocates for a smaller jail are concerned.

“We’re really concerned that the numbers seem to be shifting like this,” said Norris Henderson with advocacy group Voice of The Ex Offender, who also sits on the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “If we’re putting in pre-trial services and reducing the number of state inmates, why would we need another thousand beds?”

Gusman has already begun work on 500 more temporary beds in addition to the new 1,438-bed facility, which broke ground earlier this month.

Gusman has insisted that the 500 temporary beds are indeed temporary, and that they will be demolished by 2013, along with all of his other dilapidated facilities, as required by the council when it granted approval for the 1,438-bed facility. If that does happen, then Gusman will need another 1,000 beds to meet Austin’s earlier projections.

An entire city block sits vacant between the new 1,438-bed facility and Gusman’s new kitchen and warehouse facility, with no firm plans for any construction. Gusman has said that it might be a good idea to have “a little green space” in between the two buildings.

Still, a 2,450-bed jail would represent a compromise that is unlikely to satisfy Gusman or advocates for comprehensive criminal justice reform in New Orleans. Gusman’s initial jail plan envisioned 8,000 beds by 2020, while reform advocates say the Landrieu administration should settle on a jail no larger than the 1,438-bed facility currently under construction.

Relations between Gusman and Landrieu’s offices have grown tense as the working group continues to delay a final decision on the number of jail beds. Meanwhile, advocates for a smaller jail have hired out a billboard to tell the public that among other messages, it is time to “stop jailing people to make money.”

Malcolm Ehrhardt, a paid spokesman for Gusman, did not return an email seeking comment. Berni did not respond to a request for comment on the possibility that the working group could approve up to 1,000 more beds.

The working group meeting is set for Oct. 19 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., in the eighth floor conference room at City Hall.

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