Criminal Justice

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

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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  • Bro Keith “X” Hudson

    I don’t see the actual people who’s going to fill the gail. I see a majority of WHITE people at this meeting. So that don’t raise a “RED FLAG” in any of you “so-called” intellect’s big-brains. I don’t see representatives from Stacy Head’s camp. I don’t see Norris Henderson and his entourage. I don’t see Juvenile Justice/Safe Streets/FFLIC/La. Justice Institute/ACLU/NAACP/SCLC/So. Povery Law Center/U.S. Justice Dept., et al. Stop meeting behind closed doors, and pretending in public like you’re against this jail size. Mitch Landrieu is a “snake” just like
    his father. He created that task force to satisfy the
    public with his transparency commitment, but he ain’t
    going to NEVER go against that “Shadow Government” for Black [the people who are going to fill that jail
    no matter what the size] The Lens knows this, yet you
    play along like you’re fighting the fight. PLEASE!!!

  • Dana Kaplan

    I have to disagree with the conclusion that Austin is proposing 2,400 beds. He originally concluded that there would need to be 1,876 in 2020 (2,017 if you apply a 7.5% “peaking” factor). That is from the final policy simulations document, Table 1, which is on the mayor’s Criminal Justice Working Group website. However, he revised these numbers in response to a memo from the Vera Institute of Justice. I sent this memo to the author of this piece, but the relevant sections stated that “under both JFA and Vera’s estimates there is a projected need for 1,400 – 1,700 plus beds,” from the opening paragraph, and also “Vera’s policy simulation numbers suggest that it would be possible to lower the overall OPP population to between 1,336 and 1,461 with most of the reductions occurring in the next three years. This compares with the current policy simulation of 1,626”. The piece specifically noted that, “The proposed new facility of 1,400 – 1,500 beds may be adequate to hold the entire or the vast majority or all of the Orleans prison population in the future,” and “For all of these reasons, it makes sense to proceed immediately with construction of the new 1,438 bed facility with the proviso that it be designed with the potential it could house all of the OPP inmates”. From this, I think that Austin’s projections line up quite clearly with what the working group already recommended. I’m disappointed that this document submitted by Austin to the working group – a critical component of their recommendation – was not included in the reporting and analysis of this article. It seems a glaring omission to an informed discussion on this topic overall.

  • Matt Davis

    Hi Dana,

    Thanks so much for commenting here publicly, as I suggested you do, during our email exchange about the reporting, earlier. Very pleased to engage on this point, and I only think that this kind of public discussion about the reporting can benefit the public’s understanding of the issue generally.

    Reporters often ask government to be open but become defensive in the face of criticism themselves, and I’d like to address what you’ve perceived as a “glaring omission” in our reporting, in the same spirit of openness.

    I pulled the 2,400 number from Austin’s report to the committee in November 2010, which included state and federal beds. When I asked Austin whether his outlook had changed much, I did so in the context of raising the 2,400 recommendation he had originally made, and which we had reported on at the time, without causing a great deal of controversy. Here’s a link to that story:

    Paragraph two:

    “That same consultant, hired by Landrieu, has also recommended an Orleans Parish jail population of 2,450 by 2020 – sharply lower than the 8,000 projected recently for that year by Gusman.”

    In light of all this, I was comfortable inferring, and my editors were comfortable too, that Austin is likely to recommend 1,000 more beds than the 1,438 already approved, given his remark that the “basic trends haven’t changed much” since he delivered his opinions to the committee last November.

    Nevertheless you are right to point out that beyond the scope of this story, there have been several other sets of bed projections delivered by Austin, and others. Readers who are interested in reading more about those projections can simply search for “jail working group,” or click on my byline for a history of stories related to this issue.

    And of course, given the politics and other dynamics involved in this story, it’s also very possible that Austin’s projections may now change, considerably, from 2,400 beds, before the meeting on the 19th. It’s just that at some point, as a reporter, one has to mark time by reporting on the situation as it currently stands.

    Clearly your organization has advocated and will continue to advocate for a reduction in the number of beds from 2,400, and as pointed out in the story: “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.”

    Still, at the risk of repeating myself I continue to think that the public discussion is well-served, and better informed, by having an open conversation around the differing numbers that might be at stake. And for contributing to that discussion, once again, I do thank you.


    Matt Davis
    Criminal Justice Reporter
    504 452 5596