Surrounded by deputies, Orleans Parish Sherriff Marlin Gusman announced today that he is closing the Orleans Parish Prison House of Detention facility on Perdido Street.

He said the move is based in part on “the mounting criticisms” and the “inspections by the federal people.”

Last week, U.S. Marshals removed the 20 prisoners serving federal time at the Orleans Parish Prison, citing unacceptable conditions.

The high-rise House of Detention is one of seven facilities used to house prisoners in the prison complex. As of 7 a.m. today, there were 2,848 inmates in the parish complex, with 22 percent in the House of Detention. By the end of the week, that total will likely be reduced by at least 400.

Gusman said the 628 inmates now housed at the House of Detention are being moved to other facilities either in Orleans Parish Prison or elsewhere, beginning today. Most have been convicted of local charges. To make room for those prisoners, 400 convicts doing state time in the Orleans Parish Prison complex will be moved elsewhere in Louisiana.

Gusman would not identify those other prisons, citing security concerns. State Corrections Department officials are making plans to move those prisoners, spokeswoman Pam Laborde said.

But that doesn’t mean all state inmates are being moved. About 300 inmates serving state time will stay put in New Orleans’ detainee facilities, Gusman said.

Gusman also said that about 100 unsentenced prisoners awaiting state charges could be transferred to other facilities outside of New Orleans.

Other, special populations of inmates at the House of Detention, he said, will be shifted to other jail facilities within the Orleans Parish Prison. Those populations include youthful offenders, maximum-security prisoners, and those serving time with mental-health issues.

Gusman said closing the House of Detention was always part of his master plan for a smaller, leaner prison footprint. He said the completion of a temporary prison led to the House of Detention’s closing.

“The House of Detention is part of the city’s past,” said Gusman. “It has no role” in New Orleans’ future.

The sheriff has been dealing with a barrage of criticism over conditions at the jails under his watch. Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action suit against Gusman and numerous officials working in the Orleans Parish Prison. The suit charges a persistent culture of violence and sexual abuse has gone unchecked under Gusman’s watch.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center offered guarded praise for the Sheriff, who should be “commended for finally recognizing the intolerable and inhumane conditions at OPP” said attorney Katie Schwartzmann. But, she added, “resolving the crisis at OPP will require more than moving people from one jail to another.”

Gusman was elected Sheriff in 2004. He has consistently blamed Hurricane Katrina for a lot of the problems now bedeviling the jails, a meme he repeated Tuesday. “All of our facilities were destroyed” by the 2005 hurricane, he said.

In 2009, the U.S. Justice Department issued a report on Orleans Parish Prison facilities that found conditions to be unconstitutional.

Justice Department officials visited the prison last week, just days before the department issued a report highly critical of a rash of alleged sexual assaults at the jail.

Gusman has indicated a willingness to enter into a “memorandum of understanding” with federal officials, though his critics want the Justice Department to push for a more severe, court-enforced consent decree.

“We remain concerned with the conditions of confinement at the Orleans Parish Prison, Justice Department representative Xochitl Hinojosa wrote to The Lens on April 5.

Asked for the state’s position on a federal consent decree or a memorandum of understanding, Laborde deferred: “We’re not going to weigh in on that.”

At the afternoon press conference, a defiant Gusman rejected the latest Department of Justice report, released yesterday, that rated prisons around the country based on their ability to prevent sexual violence.

Gusman said it did not include statements from his office that, he said, undermined the veracity of the department’s accusations.

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...