City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, left and Dana Kaplan of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, right talk with Sheriff Marlin Gusman after a Friday news conference. Photo by Tom Gogola

By Tom Gogola, The Lens staff writer |

It was the eve of National Lemonade Day in the state of Louisiana – and the day that the notorious Orleans Parish Prison House of Detention was emptied of its last prisoners.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman invited reporters to the corner of Perdido and South Dupre streets Friday morning to enjoy the gratis beverage his staff had made for the occasion, quipping that he was  “trying to make lemons into lemonade” at the jail and prison system under his control.

City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, left and Dana Kaplan of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, right talk with Sheriff Marlin Gusman after a Friday news conference. Photo by Tom Gogola

Gusman said he called the Friday morning news conference for two reasons: to “mark the permanent closure” of the House of Detention, and to offer a tour of the Intake and Processing Center, where a newly created pretrial services program has just gotten underway this week, at the urging of – and participation with – the Vera Institute of Justice.

Joined by City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, juvenile-justice activist Dana Kaplan, Jon Wool from the Vera Institute, Gusman said the last of the House of Detention prisoners had been moved to other facilities that morning, three weeks after he announced his intention to empty the city-owned facility of inmates. He suggested the city implode the building, along with the empty Community Correctional Center, which it also owns.

Until then, the House of Detention has some useful infrastructure that Gusman said he’d continue to use as work is completed on a new kitchen building nearby. Besides the kitchen facilities, the House of Detention has a laundry and room for attorney-client meetings and other visits.

On Thursday, an agreement was reached between Gusman and the New Orleans Public Defender’s Office that aimed to solve a persistent complaint from defense attorneys about a lack of constitutionally required prisoner-attorney confidentiality at the jail.

Part of the agreement, negotiated under a 72-hour deadline presented to Gusman and defense attorneys on Monday by Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, is to use the House of Detention space for meetings with prisoners housed in “The Tents.” That temporary space does not offer places for private meetings.

The House of Detention will be fully phased out of commission once the new jail being constructed on Perdido Street is complete. A new kitchen facility is also being constructed nearby which will render the House of Detention facility superfluous.

The House of Detention housed about 700 prisoners, and in a statement issued through the Ehrhardt Group public relations company, Gusman noted that since April 10, “more than 690 parish inmates have been placed in new housing locations and 400 state inmates have been transferred to the Louisiana Dept. of Corrections.”

State inmates had been housed throughout the complex of other jail buildings, and their beds were taken by inmates doing parish time in the House of Detention as the state inmates were shipped off.

The pretrial services program touted by Gusman was implemented in conjunction with the Vera Institute, which now puts assessment specialists inside the Intake Center. Prisoners in orange greeted the sheriff with a friendly “hello” as reporters entered the facility, a cavernous room that once housed kitchen facilities for the jail. About half the room is a holding cell area for inmates awaiting their assessment, and the Vera Institute works with deputies in part of the other half of the building.

The Vera Institute is performing assessments on persons entering into the Orleans Parish Prison as a way to give judges as better sense of the inmates who come before them for arraignment and bail hearings.

The program has been running only since Monday. Project Director Lisa Simpson said that they had been working from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, focused on assessing the overnight bookings and may expand to include daytime and weekend bookings. She stressed that the goal was to assess everyone, but that the program was just starting. She also made a point to say that the purpose of the program was to fairly assess prisoners, and not tell judges that they should release everyone on their own recognizance.

Simpson said the organization does an inmate profile but does not make a recommendation to the judge assigned to set bail. They ask the prisoner questions about whether they have children and about their “standing in their community,” and other biographical detail.

The Vera Institute also completes a separate “objective risk assessment,” Simpson said, to determine a prisoner’s risk of violent behavior; prisoners are ranked on a low-medium-high ranking of that risk.

The goal, said Simpson, is to “help judges determine the bail,” even if the judge determines that a prisoner ought to be jailed until trial.

When asked to offer an assessment of the program’s implementation so far, Jon Wool, director of the New Orleans Vera Institute, said it was too soon to say. He noted that judges and commissioners were “eager” for the initiative during its recent, five-week trial run, and “appreciative” of the effort to better screen inmates before they get to court.

In his statement to reporters, Gusman said New Orleanians need to be “realistic about the city we live in” and spoke about the non-fatal Hollygrove shooting yesterday of a 13-year-old boy who was getting off the bus.

The city is engaged in a “relentless struggle with violent crime,” he said, before opening the doors to the Intake and Processing Center and letting the reporters in.

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...