A pile driver is parked on the site of a possible Phase III jail facility to house as many as 650 prisoners.

New Orleans criminal-justice reform advocates are lambasting a plan that would add up to 650 beds to the upgraded Orleans Parish Prison complex under construction along Perdido Street.

The new jail would represent a departure from city officials’ pledges to keep the total number of inmates to 1,438. That pledge was made April 24 by a quartet of city leaders during a meeting of the faith-based Micah Project.

The promise was made by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, a representative from Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s office, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, and city Crime Commissioner James Carter.

Within a month of that meeting, Kopplin and Gusman were in discussions about adding up to 650 beds in an entirely new facility between the two buildings now under construction. The Phase I building is the kitchen and warehouse building nearing completion along I-10; Phase II is the new inmate housing facility now under construction.

The Lens asked Mayor Mitch Landrieu for his position on the possible new facility, but Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni sidestepped the issue.

“There is no formal proposal to be weighed in on at this time,” he said in a statement.

Others with an eye on the criminal-justice system were more direct.

“We are very concerned,” Micah Project Executive Director Daniel Schwartz said. “What we are reading now contradicts that pledge, so we will have to revisit this issue. We are disappointed, and we need to make sure that that pledges made by the city to the community are honored.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a statement condemning the proposal generally and Gusman in particular.

The organization claimed Gusman has been unable to “protect the almost 3,000 people already in his custody from brutal abuses – often meted out by his own employees.”

The law center sued Gusman earlier this year over the violent conditions in the jails under his control.

“Before we put any more people in his custody, we need assurances from the sheriff that the brutal conditions inside of OPP are being seriously addressed,” the statement reads.

In a follow-up interview, Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Katie Schwartzmann agreed that the City Council and the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Working Group share the blame for not being up front with New Orleanians about the Phase III jail under consideration.

The Lens obtained designs specs and other correspondence related to the proposed building through a public-records request filed with Kopplin in late May.

According to a May 25 letter from Gusman to Kopplin, the proposed jail would have 106 medical beds; 164 mental-health beds; 256 re-entry beds; and 128 minimum-custody beds.

“These would be mostly dormitories with the exception of special housing for Medical and Mental Health,” Gusman wrote.

“This issue has not been discussed publicly,” Schwartzmann said. “The conversation about expanding bed capacity needs to be more transparent. This directly contradicts what city leaders have said – it is important for the city and the Mayor’s [Criminal Justice] Working Group to reconvene and let us have a public dialogue.

That panel has not scheduled its next meeting. It last convened in October and discussed a cap between 1,750 and 3,000-plus total beds. Kopplin runs the group; Guidry is a member.

“The jail working group agreed there was still work to be done as it relates to future use of city-owned property and evaluating how many additional jail beds will be needed for local prisoners, state DOC prisoners, reentry programs and mental health and substance abuse bed,” Berni said.

City officials and criminal justice reform advocates are betting that the Vera Institute of Justice’s pretrial program, which started recently at the jail, will result in fewer inmates.

That program is intended to give judges more information regarding the risk posed by arrestees. If fewer people are deemed dangerous, more could be released on reduced or no bond.

“We have supported the pre-trial services program and funded it in our budget,” Berni said. “It is too early to tell what impact it will have on the long-term size of the Orleans Parish Prison.”

Gusman’s office released a statement saying that the complex needs to be improved.

“Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, the OPSO’s medical facilities continue to operate out of trailers, but we have worked to earn accreditation and improve our own processes as we attempt to help some of the poorest and sickest members of our community, as they are brought into our custody,” the statement reads.

“The OPSO operates the largest mental health facility in the city of New Orleans not by choice, but by necessity. The federal government has expressed the need for expanded mental health services in our jail facilities.”

The 1,438 figure has become something of a totem for criminal justice reform advocates, who equate a hard number with a set of expectations about the city’s efforts to square public safety with prisoners’ civil and human rights.

One of those expectations is that the city operate transparently.

“It’s not surprising to me how secretive these people are,” said prisoners-rights advocate Norris Henderson. “I think it is a betrayal to all of the folks who have been having this discussion over the past couple of years. It goes contrary to what the ordinance lays out — you are going against the ordinance. You are going contrary to what the law says.”

Not so, Berni said.

“We have consistently said that we believe additional beds may be needed to help transition Orleans Parish residents back into the workforce,” he said, “and to provide higher quality substance abuse, mental health, and medical services for those in prison.”

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...